Blocks, Lines and Space

When architecture met videogames

Space Invaders. Defender. Asteroids. Pac-Man. Donkey Kong. Graphically just lines, blocks and text set against a black void. Designed in the late 1970s and early 80s for arcade machines, these games soon made their way into homes via the Thatcher-Reagan era microcomputer boom. You could interact with aliens and spaceships, celestial bodies, ghosts and an angry gorilla in your own home. It’s worth remembering that the high tech world of computer programming sat beside more mundane suburban pursuits. Our computer lived on what had once been the dining table, near the bread bin and larder in our 1950s council house in a working class suburb of South London. Nothing in or near our house looked like the glowing digital world conjured up by computer games. Even the computer itself looked as sensibly beige as a toaster or small hatchback. But soon I would begin to see places that did. Bus stations and offices with brightly coloured fibreglass shells and tinted windows; houses with lurid red or blue window frames and detailing; shopping centres and factory units housed beneath a primary coloured grid of struts, like a wireframe diagram come to life.

Nothing in or near our house looked like the glowing digital world conjured up by computer games. Even the computer itself looked as sensibly beige as a toaster or small hatchback. But soon I would begin to see places that did.

There are many well-documented parallels between videogames and architecture – as forms of world building, in the techniques used to engineer and visualise those worlds, and in the style of them too. And the more complex videogames have become, the more they have dragged the world-building properties of computer-aided design into gameplay. Some, like Sim City and The Sims, allow you to play the holy trinity of god, architect and town planner. Others offer us increasingly complex environments – both realistic and fantastical – to facilitate adventure and narrative, whether via the first-person military action of Call of Duty or the ringworld fantasy of Halo. Computer generated imagery now dominates our imaginations. As Hollywood has increasingly thrown itself towards digital animation techniques to augment and bend cityscapes and architecture in films like Inception and the X-Men series, so videogames have increasingly adopted the narrative conceits of Hollywood films to give meaning to the infinite possibilities of gaming scenarios. And as VR finally starts to deliver on a promise that has hung around for decades, in both games and architecture, it is clear that both disciplines increasingly are relying on the same technology for visualisation and engineering, to create a sense of seamlessness, of adult finesse and plausibility.

But I’m not interested in that. As the capabilities of technology have expanded, the ability to drag and drop shitloads of code and whole pre-written elements means that alongside the infinitely seamless sense of possibility that technology gives us, there also hangs a pall of the hackneyed, the cut-and-paste, the will-this-do. In architecture this leads to pattern-book housing where developers endlessly tweak existing designs based on the safety of what sells, rather than trying to create better homes. In games it leads to a sense of familiarity across genres. More interesting to me are the worlds created in videogames where human interaction goes beyond gaming, where imagination and the suspension of disbelief becomes an important part of the work too. Faced with the familiarity of sleek perfection it’s hard to fully engage. The increasingly realistic landscapes of games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are so good they’re barely interesting at all. The drive to realism is ultimately a drive to banality, to make everything so normal it’s barely remarkable. Yet given something light touch, sketchy and imperfect, our imaginations rush in to fill the void.

The increasingly realistic landscapes of games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are so good they’re barely interesting at all. The drive to realism is ultimately a drive to banality, to make everything so normal it’s barely remarkable. Yet given something light touch, sketchy and imperfect, our imaginations rush in to fill the void.

This is why I feel drawn towards early videogames, the sort you might have played on a stand-up arcade cabinet while waiting in your local chippy, on handheld Tiger LCD games bought from a toyshop, or most likely, on personal computers at home or round a friend’s house. There was no attempt at realism here – instead we were offered a succession of strange non-landscapes to negotiate. The imaginative leap required is also why I feel an attachment to the architecture of that era too, the sort of colourful, shiny high-tech and postmodernism that followed brutalism and saw pixelated and simplified references to older architectural styles emerge. Here everything from classicism to baroque found itself pastiched in primary coloured fibreglass with tinted black or mirrored windows, often with little or no concern for the reality of the world around it. One of postmodernism’s main stated concerns was to respond to history and urban context, yet its clear from some of the more outlandish results – I’m looking at you Philip Johnson’s ‘Chippendale’ AT&T building in Manhattan – that some architects found themselves unable to shake off the lure of the shock of the new. In both games and architecture, low resolution pixelation made it sometimes hard for us to see what the designers were getting at. But while it required the user to do a lot of the heavy lifting – making the leap from stark outlines to fully fleshed-out forms – we find ourselves drawn in as part of this world, our imagination a key component in making these landscapes work, be they virtual or real. There is a love of the entirely synthetic in both, where 1970s game design and 1980s architecture are artificial as jelly sweets, plastic packaging and Casio keyboard sounds. And much as these things are often sneered at, they are capable of inspiring joy.

Blocks, lines and space were the constituent parts of early arcade games. Some relied on only two elements. Lines and space are the basic ingredients of Asteroids, for example, whose lonely cursor-shaped spaceship is lost in an infinity of blackness, until the sombre outlines of planetary bodies begin to encroach. Blocks and space are the elements of Space Invaders, where an anti spacecraft gunner scuttles sideways, dodging between blocks, horribly outnumbered by the chunky lumbering hordes in the sky. Other games saw the three elements – line, block and space – combine. There was greedy Pac-Man’s progress around an outline maze patrolled by solid blancmange ghosts. The free flying interceptor in Defender skirting the bare outline of the planet surface, peopled by lumpy aliens and pixelated victims. The barely legible figure of Donkey Kong hurling down barrels on a wonky multi-storey grid. The gameplay might be entirely different, but the backdrop of each is a flat black nothing. Infinite space. An unpopulated, simplistic universe, an almost blank screen presenting the barest of forms. They are the lines and grids of a technical drawing board come to life.

My gateway drug for these games was the BBC Micro, a computer created primarily for education, and bought by schools across the UK. Bigger, clunkier and more robust than early home computers of a similar vintage, such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, I have no idea how, in 1983, my family came to own one. I can only imagine it was one of many ill-advised but heartbreakingly admirable acts of hire purchase from my flat-broke parents to ensure we had something resembling the latest in home tech, be it a VHS video recorder or CD player. They bought cautiously and wisely – no Laserdisc players or Betamax for us. The computer was classic mum and dad: putting their trust behind the sensible brains of the BBC, for one, and buying it without much pestering from me or my brothers. They got it simply because it seemed the right thing to do. And for a couple of years it became utterly central to the way we lived. My eldest brother played a lot of text games on it, most notably The Hobbit, where telling Thorin to fuck off was important work. Middle brother and I played a lot of strategy games together, like a Battleships-cum-Football Manager number called Johnny Reb in which you positioned canon and infantry to try to outplay the computer or each other. But when I was alone I spent all my time either writing programs that generated coloured triangles or playing games that were a throwback to the late 1970s: Planetoid, the BBC’s version of arcade classic Defender, Asteroid Belt, a version of Asteroids, Space Raiders, a version of Space Invaders, and some version of Pac-Man we got with a magazine. Each were loaded via cassette tape, the whistling and droning a song only the BBC Micro understood.

In the skeletal graphics of Asteroids and Defender we see a virtue being made of lightness, of showing the workings, of transparency. These are the watchwords of high tech architecture, a form perfected by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster in their work from the 1960s to the present day.

The simplicity of the forms we saw on the monitor screen seemed to reflect a new world being built around us, a world of corrugated high-tech sheds at business parks and out of town shopping centres, colourful office blocks and city centre flats. In the skeletal graphics of Asteroids and Defender we see a virtue being made of lightness, of showing the workings, of transparency. These are the watchwords of high tech architecture, a form perfected by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster in their work from the 1960s to the present day. The Pompidou Centre, designed by Rogers and Piano, with its playful use of colourful ducting and layers of levels seen through the glass walls just needs a gorilla throwing barrels down at you from the top to complete a likeness to Donkey Kong. If Norman Foster were to design a videogame it would be Asteroids, where a barely-there outline spaceship fires pixel-sized bolts to break up heavy rocks so lightly described, just white lines on a black background. The whole is rendered as airily as the high tech shed he constructed to house the Sainsbury art collection at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. If he could have displayed the artwork there on a simple pixel-wide line on an infinite flat black backdrop he would have.

Of course, many of the games for the BBC Micro were not as stylishly monochrome as Asteroids. Some – like Johnny Reb, with its canon and infantrymen on lurid green landscape and red river, or Boot Hill, with its yellow road bisecting a blue landscape interrupted by the occasional green cactus – are 8-bit attempts to create what we might just be able to interpret as place. In this there’s a kinship with postmodern architecture, with its recreation of recognisable elements from history in primary colours and simplified pixelated form. It also is a reminder of context: these days those postmodern buildings can look strangely gaudy and basic. But when seen alongside cultural items from the day, particularly the graphics of arcade games, they suddenly make sense. Here stand the tropes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, classical architecture and Bavarian castles rendered in block colours and 8-bit paraphrasing, forms that dream of the complexity of emoji banks, schools and office blocks.

It’s not just postmodernism and high-tech that I can detect in Donkey Kong or Asteroids. There is something of the perfection of modernism in those early games too, reminding me of those photos of heroic modernist buildings intentionally taken without people in them. BBC Micro games couldn’t feature realistic human forms because of the constraints of the technology. Heroic modernism preferred not to show the human form because it messed up the clean lines. But it was in the work of the critics of this form of architecture that we begin to see links being made between architecture and videogames. New waves of modern architects in the 1960s wanted to add playfulness and interactivity back into their practice, to mess with the clean functionality and patrician hierarchy of heroic modernism. In Britain there was Archigram, a loose collective of anarchic men, with more in common with hipster prank pop of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band and Monty Python than the serious souls of the Bauhaus or a municipal architects department. Team members created outlandish and provocative notions such as a city that could walk, or disposable ‘plug-in’ landscapes, whose ideas were adopted by other designers, most obviously in Los Angeles, where space and growth felt unrestrained. This was the landscape that most readily influenced the early pioneers of silicon valley. Never mind that Archigram’s biggest achievement on the ground was a short-lived playground in the shape of a boat in the English new town of Milton Keynes, its members would go on to design everything from the walkways of London’s Southbank Centre to consulting on the jet propulsion lab at NASA. There was also Cedric Price, who worked with revolutionary theatre impresario Joan Littlewood on Fun Palaces – multi-purpose lightweight structures created to house egalitarian communal amusement in its most hippyish of guises. He was drawn to installations using video and computer technology, seeing Fun Palaces as more akin to lightweight lunar modules than stodgy municipal art galleries. A return to playfulness and interactivity in architecture was pioneered by these figures. Without them later high tech buildings such as the Pompidou Centre might not have existed at all. And without those in turn, the landscapes of early videogames – from the colourful layered chaos of Donkey Kong to the luridly realised maze of Pac-Man – might have been very different.

And so if we’re looking for cause and effect here – which at best is a sketchy pastime – it was those 1960s pioneer architects rather than the later users of Computer Aided Design, or CAD, who most echoed the look and spatial geometries of early computer games. Use of CAD grew up concurrently with the spread of gaming technology. It was initially so expensive that only a handful of mega-practices could afford it. A survey in 1985 revealed that within a year half of the microcomputers bought for business use had been abandoned. Yet for years plenty of architects had been working in ways that felt strangely akin to computer game graphics. Take Glaswegian modernist pioneer James Stirling who had long been a big fan of using axonometrics – illustrating viewpoints taken from any point around a building, and often in Stirling’s perverse case seen from below – to illustrate the structures he was designing. They remind me most of the exploded diagrams of buildings and vehicles so popular in comics of the day. These axonometrics gave the impression of images taken while flying around a building as it floated in space, as if they were model shots from Star Wars or the flexible viewpoints offered by later CAD systems, rather than tethered to something as mundane as Earth. They remind me too of another simulation of computer graphics used in the BBC’s 1981 television adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. These may have looked like computer generated vector diagrams glowing against a black background, but in reality they were created using old fashioned stop motion animation, by graphic artists scraping away black wax from a sheet to reveal the glow of the lightbox below. Across industries designers were faking computer design techniques with great accuracy.

The layouts of early computer games have something of Le Corbusier’s tabula rasa to them, where instead of vast tower block cities placed in endless green parks there are the defensive blockades of Space Invaders sitting in empty space.

It isn’t just architecture that these early games reminds me of. Flying through the landscape zoetrope strip of Planetoid the planet surface is described by a single jagged white line, denoting craggy rocks, mountains and plateaus. After a while this scrolling line ends up looking less like the description of a landscape, and more like the wave of an ever-scrolling line graph. The aliens along the way come to resemble data points either above or below the line. Rather than architecture, we are now in the realm of town planning, where the march of statistics leads to an urgent sense of being overwhelmed, of issues to be addressed, data to be processed. Planetoid is infographic as landscape, data as world builder.

Architects have always been obsessed with illicit thoughts of the infinite, of renouncing all responsibilities to context. The attraction of designing without a sense of place and the constraints of reality – be they physical, functional or human – is the dream brief. The layouts of early computer games have something of Le Corbusier’s tabula rasa to them, where instead of vast tower block cities placed in endless green parks there are the defensive blockades of Space Invaders sitting in empty space. In the heyday of postmodern architecture in the 1980s we see the playfulness of arcade games – with their interactivity, bold use of colour and graphic use of line – reflected in the most fashionable structures of the day. As time went on, and that use of primary colour and pixelated graphics fell from favour in both videogames and architecture, more sophisticated forms emerged. We began to see – clumsily at first and then ever more artfully – versions of game design and architecture that attempted to accurately recreate reality through ever more faithfully banal digital modelling. Despite all of those efforts there is something to be said for the purity and imaginative achievement of both early videogame design and later forays in postmodern architecture. In an attempt to suggest worlds both old and new through pixelation and vectors the pioneers of high tech architecture, postmodernism and videogames led a technological revolution that is still being played out today.