Op-ed: With NFTs, renderings take on new currency, representing a fundamental shift

Non-Fungible Architecture?

Op-ed: With NFTs, renderings take on new currency, representing a fundamental shift

The Mars House that sold for $500,000 in March of this year. (Screenshot from SuperRare)

Back in June of last year, I wrote about a concept called PR-chitecture, which I described as “architectural vaporware”—renderings accompanied by PR-speak of projects that will never get built, whose entire existence and economy revolve around garnering clicks and attention for their respective firms. I wrote:

Conveniently, all of these solutions [to social problems] are salable, generating attention and income—click-based ad revenue or commissions, it’s all the same, really—to those peddling them. It’s a win-win situation: Your firm ends up on the front page of Dezeen, plus you end up looking forward-thinking and compassionate to the plight of the unsophisticated masses who could truly benefit from your bold and innovative ideas. Most of the time, you don’t even have to go to the trouble of building anything!

The PR-chitecture economy hitherto revolved around social media—getting your renderings on the front page of design blogs and on curated Instagram pages, which then drive traffic back to the firm in question, which brings attention, which brings business. PR-chitecture revolves around image consumption; however, the computer images themselves were not necessarily salable, because how could they be? They’re digital files, which can be endlessly replicated across the internet. In the year since I wrote about PR-chitecture, though, new technology has come to the fore that has the potential to erode the divide between real and imagined, the art market and the economy of architecture. Of course, I’m talking about non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.

On March 22nd, 2021, it was reported that artist Krista Kim sold her Mars House—a 3D-rendered virtual home—as an NFT for $512,000. This is a house that does not exist, and even though its creative origins are currently in dispute (Kim hired a freelancer to compile elements of the rendering, and said freelancer is now taking her to court), the price still stands. Not to mention that the video of the house can be copied an endless number of times on the internet. But it’s not the video that’s being sold for so much money, it’s the deed to its ownership via a transaction on a blockchain. That’s essentially all an NFT, or non-fungible token, is. Most NFTs are based on the cryptocurrency Ethereum, which is built on something called “proof of work”—in reality a bunch of computers solving complex math problems in order to “mine” new tokens. This is an energy-intensive process, but we’ll get to that part later.

Since the dawn of net art in the ’90s, digital artists have struggled to find ways to finance and monetize their work, and the solutions over time have varied. Digital artists offered commissions at a range of prices and produced custom artwork in return, a kind of informal, low-yield system that continues to this day. Some sold limited-edition prints on sites like Big Cartel. Back in the 2000s, when genres like webcomics were on the rise, artists relied heavily on embedded advertising on their stand-alone websites, something made less viable by ad blockers and the emergence of other forms of patronage. Prior to NFTs, the most recent trends involved crowdfunding, whether on sites like Kickstarter that fund self-contained projects, or through patronage-based sites like Patreon that work on a subscription model. (My blog, McMansion Hell, is funded through Patreon.) While these models kept digital artists fed, none had an answer to the question of proof of ownership that, in the traditional art market, is furnished by auction houses, galleries, and other certifying entities. This was the driving impetus behind the creation of NFTs.

Of course, the fact that NFTs are now being traded on the IRL art market is proof that what is old is truly new again. For proof, a little scrappy young upstart named Sotheby’s just hosted an auction where non-fungible tokens and traditional artworks were mingled together, as though they were interchangeable. NFTs are just the art market digitized; aside from the technology behind them, there’s nothing innovative about them whatsoever. Nor are they equitable: If we look at who is making money from NFTs, it’s people who are already notable. If you are anonymous, you will remain anonymous. The marketplaces and platforms for NFTs, such as SuperRare, are heavily moderated and curated, and their wares tend to tilt toward projects with the highest potential for profit. How, then, is the NFT market any different from a Sotheby’s auction? It isn’t.

With regard to architecture, this raises many questions. For most of architecture’s history, the images produced by architects, while artistic and beautiful and skillful, mostly have fallen under the category of “practical drawings”—sections and elevations meant to communicate to clients architectural spaces that do not yet exist. Of course, since the formalization of architectural practice, there have been speculative, unbuilt projects, concept art, et cetera, but this category, dubbed “paper architecture,” has traditionally fulfilled a critical and political role rather than a profitable one. The work of Superstudio, for example, was meant to critique the top-down institution of midcentury urban planning as well as make a tongue-in-cheek statement about nonstop consumerism in a modern, technological world. Do architectural renderings and these speculative images end up in art museums and in private collections via the art market? Yes. Was that their creators’ original intent? While many of these illustrations were created with galleries and magazines in mind, they were not created specifically for consumption on the art market.

Architecture as a field does not exist to sell images. This makes it unique among the visual arts. It’s an inherently spatial practice that is linked to the real, tangible world, inhabited by people, the backdrop of everyday life. Of course, since the Second Industrial Revolution, architects have sold things like house plans with full schematics in pattern books, which are then built by a local contractor; but this, too, is different from how art is produced and sold. Architects do not sell their drawings in the same way an artist—digital or analog—would, and this is why the NFT house is not meant to be built—it is a visual representation of a house, a work of digital art, not architecture. It cannot be replicated in the real world. And yet it is discussed in places like Dezeen as though it were a work of architecture just as valid as any other.

The difference between art and architecture is an age-old debate—one I’m not going to get into here—but the key distinction is that architecture is defined by its presence in the physical world. What is interesting to me is that the architectural rendering, especially the computer-generated one, has all-but replaced physically constructed buildings in the feeds of outlets like Dezeen and Instagram. Every time Bjarke Ingels or Thomas Heatherwick releases a new speculative design, we hear about it everywhere, regardless of whether it actually gets built.

Now, with NFTs, these images have the potential to move away from the traditional PR-chitecture role and take on new currency, representing a fundamental shift in the way architectural images are produced and consumed, with very real consequences. Judging by architecture’s ever-present desire to jump on the latest trend put forth by the tech industry, the infiltration of NFTs into the field is all but inevitable.

What is particularly interesting is that NFTs introduce a new type of architectural speculation into the mix, one distinctly different from that of conventional real estate speculation, which COVID-19 has pushed into disrepair. To this critic, the difference between Krista Kim’s virtual house and the real estate bubble that blossomed in the virtual world Second Life in the late aughts is semantic; like I say, what’s old is new again. NFTs represent a kind of financial dream for the architect of a certain persuasion—crest the wave of speculation without having to deal with pesky developers or unionized construction workers or demanding climates. If you make a flashy, optical illusion GIF of it, they will come.

Lastly, there is the question of the carbon footprint of NFTs, something that very materially distinguishes the NFT from the prior PR-chitecture of prior. As it currently stands, the Ethereum blockchain uses about the same amount of electricity as the country of Libya. An article on The Verge phrased the climate impacts this way:

When someone makes, buys, or sells an NFT using Ethereum, they’re responsible for some of the emissions generated by those miners. What’s still up for debate is whether NFTs are significantly increasing emissions from Ethereum or if they’re just taking on responsibility for emissions that would have been generated by miners anyway. Without NFTs, miners would still be plugging away at puzzles and polluting. And NFTs are still a relatively small portion of all Ethereum transactions.

But, the authors note, “[i]f NFTs significantly push up the value of Ethereum, miners might try to cash in by upping how many machines they use. More machines generally mean more pollution. (And even if new machines are better at solving puzzles, making them more energy-efficient, proof-of-work puzzles are designed to get progressively more difficult. Again, the system was designed to keep things inefficient.)” There are currently some efforts to make NFTs and cryptocurrency more energy efficient or to offset the environmental costs somehow, but one cannot deny that there are environmental costs in the first place. As mentioned in the Verge article: Beeple, whose work Everydays: The First 5000 Days sold for $69 million dollars at a Christie’s auction, promised to reduce his carbon footprint by investing in things like renewable energy and conservation projects. Ethereum has been looking for ways to make itself more energy efficient, though there is doubt whether this will come to fruition, and many artists are looking for green NFT alternatives.

However, the problem I have is that ­­regardless of the attempts to make NFTs greener, they still insert a lot of carbon into a part of the art market where it wasn’t before, namely in the purchasing of art. This is a whole rabbit hole one can go down. Are NFTs really worse carbon-wise than the auction system traditional art is sold through? Is this more energy inefficient than the cost of upkeep on, say, eBay’s or Patreon’s servers? The answers don’t matter because those things already exist in the world, already have a carbon footprint of their own. NFTs introduce more carbon on top of that. Even though they make up a relatively small part of cryptocurrency’s energy consumption, they still constitute a part of it, they are still entangled in that ethical debate, and as more artists—and architects—flock to them, the problem is only going to get worse.

Kate Wagner is an architecture critic and the creator of the blog McMansion Hell. Her column America by Design can be found in The New Republic.