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Designing For Blockheads

27 September 2017

All parents will be familiar with childhood obsessions and addictions.

Some are passing fads – anyone remember Fidget Spinners already; let alone Crazy Bones and Bakugan (we have a big boxes of both going on eBay soon, if anyone’s interested) – while others, Club Penguin, were more enduring and had more traction. Pokémon is still a curse.

Yet the ultimate opium of the young people and without compare in turning them into unresponsive, fixated crack-addled zombie droogs is Minecraft.

Blockheads-childOf course, we are complicit in this initially, seeing it as benign – it’s virtual Lego after all – and constructive: they’re using their imaginations, aren’t they?

It’s only later, when we’re faced with teeth-bared, snarling monsters as we try to wrest the phone/ tablet/ laptop/ console from them to feed them; that we realise the harm we’ve allowed to happen and that they would rather live in bus shelters, if it meant not being denied access to the ‘game’.

There is some hyperbole in the above, yet not much.

However, we can consider the positives regardless, if we can look past its grip on the young and its environmental improbabilities: there is no gravity, except that applying to aggregates, liquids spring from anywhere; the shocking pixellation of the basic cubes close up, and that complex structures and systems can be built using the world’s worst pickaxe.

Of the positives, the first is the IT dimension where some will move on to hosting their own servers, and start to work with the ‘classic’ iteration in Linux etc. Second, as alluded to above, is the use of imagination in the construction context. The gravity issue, to which Lego is so disappointingly subject, liberates us to float buildings – and islands – in the air; we can create megalopolises beyond the dreams of the most ambitious nascent Ceaușescu and collaborate with our friends in generating, literally in the terms of Minecraft, whole worlds.

And this is where it gets interesting for grown-ups, as there are those who are now seriously engaging with Minecraft – if not as a design tool, then as a vehicle – the sandbox it was meant to be – for exploration of structures and ‘scapes on a virtual basis. This allows the human to move through spaces which hitherto may have even been built before anyone realised they weren’t, er, very human.

After all, if you can learn how to land an Airbus 380 in Beijing in a GRP box on hydraulic stilts in a shed in Crawley; then why can’t something like Minecraft be deployed to realise the full creative potential of architects. Better still, these future architects will have been working with the platform since the age of seven; unlike those entering flight simulators either as graduates or on a corporate jolly.

Of course, truth is stranger than fiction and there are now established architectural collaboration groups working in Minecraft and the RIBA even has its own server, which it uses to encourage young people to explore architecture through a medium which they already find fun. It’s a no-brainer really.

While there have been claims to have built real-life Minecraft structures, they are firmly rooted in the realms of Lego and don’t display the wit nor scale that the virtual world allows. At the moment, we’re simply seeing renditions of imaginary or existing buildings – BlockWorks’s Villa Rotunda is a famous example – rather than working visuals expressing buildings-to-be.

However, it remains that if a generation of building designers was brought up on Lego; then it is inevitable that a coming one – if not the next – will have gained its inspiration through Minecraft.

Which means we can all relax, and leave the little blighters glued to the screen in the comfortable knowledge that we’re not shirking our pastoral responsibilities, but encouraging the architects of the future.

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