It’s no secret that political parties rely on architecture as a way to express and impose power, sometimes forthcoming and other times unspoken. In the instance of The Free Republic of Liberland—an as-yet-unrecognized and currently uninhabited micronation on the western bank of the Danube between Serbia and Croatia—architecture is discussed openly by its inner circle as an important tool. But how does power express itself architecturally without land? Or without physically building anything at all?
Liberland attempted just that when Founder and President Vít Jedlička entrusted Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) to devise a new architectural weapon as the site of the country’s seventh anniversary celebration. Unveiled in a soft opening on April 13, Liberland Metaverse is an immersive 3D environment built on the Mytaverse platform that seeks to represent how the nation will look when it is completed in real life. That’s the hope for this metaverse, but the result, I found, is a bland video game for Boomer political extremists. While I hesitate to give any more attention to the ego-maniacal ZHA Principal Patrik Schumacher, my hands spent an entire morning dragging my lower eyelids down my cheek, forcing myself to watch the cringiest shit I’ve ever seen. I simply must share.
Schumacher’s feeble grasp of gaming spaces reveals a shocking disconnect between the project and its intended end user. In his project text, Schumacher states that the discipline of game design mostly produces ideologically regressive fantasy worlds. But for decades game designers have been making beautifully immersive and social digital spaces rich with cultural value. There are tons of licensed architects today who spent hundreds of hours in 2015 shooting the shit with their friends between Vault of Glass runs in Bungie’s Destiny—a far more immersive and aesthetically pleasing environment than Liberland Metaverse. I’ve experienced better spatial sequencing playing the Academy of Raya Lucaria in Elden Ring. Even the cartoon version of Downtown Los Angeles, presented in Grand Theft Auto as San Andreas, is a more compelling digital representation of physical reality. There are many precedents of digital spatial organization which Schumacher has ignored, largely obvious when looking at the result of his first steps into digital immersive space. Architecture as a discipline has a worthy pedigree for making digital space, but it seems, in a sadly expected act of hubris, Schumacher ignored basic steps of the design process: analyze constraints and seek precedents.
The bet that ZHA is making—designing a metaverse space like a built project in order to anticipate the eventual built outcome—is dead on arrival because the building will never be as useful as its metaverse version. It locks the entire country into an aesthetic outcome that is predetermined and absolutely not, as it claims, decentralized. If parametricism/tectonism is so all-consuming, why is Schumacher the only one who is allowed to practice it? Why do all new ZHA buildings look like someone unironically wearing New Balance shoes just discovered the tweencurves command in Rhino and thought “now that is something I can sell as futuristic!”
The Liberland soft opening, timed to the nation’s seventh anniversary, transpired in a single building organized with main floors that are open and spacious, filled with multiple small gathering spaces sealed in by a ring of white light emanating from the floor. These rings are found throughout the project—they demarcate a sound barrier. Two people could be having a loud conversation or streaming a movie together and it is absolutely silent until you cross that barrier, a standard feature of Mytaverse work environments. These various rooms are organized around a central atrium, which is free of handrails because you are encouraged to simply jump down into it no matter what level you are on. At the bottom of your jump is a sound isolated hole with one measly rectangular screen. There is very little in the way of material development or sensuality of the environment. The weather is always sunny and the materials are stark white while various shapes curve around you. It looks like my dentist’s waiting room after I’ve had my first puff of nitrous oxide.
In one of the sound-isolated conferencing nooks, a video played showing flythrough plans for the eventual City Hall. There is a small podium surrounded by what appears to be multiple rows of tables set up in circular relation to one another—no doubt a desire to create a room for democratic conversation and rulemaking. What is striking, however, is just how little the Liberland state is purportedly able to achieve. That Liberland, a state whose motto is “live and let live” to the extreme, should have such a grand and powerful city hall that looks like an evil character’s lair seems suspicious. If there isn’t power to wield over others, why should such power be reflected by its space? I’d much prefer a big rock or a talking stick.
A good contrast to the Liberland Metaverse is a different digital project by ZHA—notably lacking written words from Schumacher—the Medical Center in Erangel. This building was a collaboration by ZHA and PUBG MOBILE, a mobile video game, in the design of a play space for a first-person shooter. A summary video of the process highlights strategic and brilliantly executed moments in the design: There are many lines of sight in and out, players can parachute right into the center of the project, and there exists a detailed attention to the limits of polygons for mobile performance and texturing. The result is something resplendent—an accessible social space designed as a collaboration with architectural expertise rather than as speculative real estate backed by nauseating blowhards.
Ultimately the aesthetics of the Liberland Metaverse exactly match its politics. On the outside, the building screams about an immense desire for total individual freedom. Inside, however, it is stolid, lifeless, and completely missing the point. The room is filled with people who talk about being oppressed by state capitalism and blame right-wing bugaboos like Cancel Culture. Yet a glance around reveals power-hungry folk who are quite successful in the world they claim is not good for them—bragging constantly about being innovators and entrepreneurs. They claim Liberland will be better for all people but have yet to hatch a plan to tell us exactly how their free markets would create a world any different from the off-balance one we live in today. What is really being innovated here for this critic is an actual ideologically-regressive fantasy world, in which powerful people can gather to try and escape systemic problems that we instead need to face together.