Juan Ortiz Solórzano and Fatemeh Monfared are the faces and minds behind the Madrid-based architecture firm SpacesDAO—one of the world’s first metaverse-native architecture firms. Meaning that they work strictly in the metaverse on commission from clients around the globe. Their metaverse profession is still so new that the bounds of the role’s definition are being written now. Their combined experience of both IRL and metaverse-only design study allows them to create from a place of extreme empathy, on the part of their end-users. And their knowledge of the metaverse landscape has enabled them to approach the world of web3 from a design-centric view. We recently discussed the importance of architectural history to the metaverse; what an architecture education brings to design for the metaverse; and what they’ll be most proud of about their work in early web3, ten years into the future.
There are many different aspects to the metaverse; NFTs and architecture are just one part of the equation. So let’s start at the beginning… How do you define the metaverse? And to continue on the theme of simplicity: what is a metaverse architect?
FM: For me, the metaverse is the next iteration of the internet. And that’s one of the most straightforward answers I can give. So, architects have a role in shaping this because this next iteration will be 3D—and as architects, we bring value in the way we conceptualize spaces in 3D, and we have been doing that… forever. So, we’re bringing that to life in virtual worlds.
JOS: It’s the next step in connectivity, online and in 3D.
Why have you chosen the name Spaces DAO? Do you aim to become a DAO?
FM: I remember meeting with Juan earlier on and having no idea how to name our firm. We had so many conversations and ultimately decided to hint at architecture and the fact that we’re designing spaces — and in architecture school, we learn how to design structures and anticipate conditions. So we really narrowed down architecture, to just the space, and that’s why we choose the word ‘Spaces’ as part of our name. And for the DAO part; we wanted to express the ethos of a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization); we want to have a DAO at some point in the future. And we want to be decentralized in our ways of working.
How did you two meet, while at school? What drew you to one another? And why choose to work directly in the metaverse straight out of university as opposed to practicing physical architecture? Beyond the obvious advantages of less upstart cost; how has it changed your thinking about what it means to be an architect?
J: We were both already in the space but more in the creation part of web3, as opposed to only NFTs or the crypto aspects of it. We realized we were both interested in the same aspects of the metaverse. I had already been practicing as an architect for about a year and a half when we first met. And it was the perfect mix for me, because I love architecture and 3D. We started talking and meeting and thinking about working together, and we got our first client in December of last year and things just progressed from there, very quickly.
FM: We founded our firm last November. I had a different journey from Juan, because I never actually practiced architecture in the physical world before I began working in the metaverse. I went in directly to the metaverse and it was quite hard in the sense that no one wanted to take it seriously then. Not many people called themselves metaverse architects. Actually, when I was contacted for my first interview on the profession last year, the journalist who found me said they did so by searching for the term ‘metaverse architect’. And apparently, I was one of four! And the three others, it turns out, were ‘architecting’ the tech of the metaverse, rather than practicing architecture in the metaverse. My journey to web3 was influenced by the people around me. I am quite a web3 native, from the early days, mostly through my interest in design in space, and that pushed me to have the courage to go into the metaverse, directly. That’s around the time I met Juan…
Does, in your opinion, someone need to have an education in architecture to be a metaverse architect? The term is as of yet, still, unprotected? Regardless of your own view on the term, what does having an education in architecture add to working in the metaverse that someone without a background in it, add to the practice, of it?
FM: Traditional architects are geniuses in working within limitations and creating something out of that. And a lot of people say creativity in the metaverse can be unlimited because there are no limitations. But it’s wrong to say we don’t have limitations in the metaverse—we do, and they are all unique to each metaverse platform. And we can take advantage of that in a way to create engaging spaces that are also relatable and connected to humanity.
We want to build for humans, and in the metaverse, this is basically, for avatars. If you’re a 3D modeler, you can also be a very good designer for the metaverse—and I don’t think that designing for the metaverse should be limited to traditionally trained architects. The metaverse is open to anyone. But there is an added value. Of having that architecture background to the final version of what you create that can be seen quite easily.
Would you say that it’s possible to see that someone has an architecture background through their detailing of their projects in the metaverse; literally, how the different elements of their work combine? The more fluid and well put-together, the more evident someone’s education in the profession of design, in the finished product… Is that what you mean?
JOS: At the end of the day, it’s really about the end user. If we design a custom chick coop, we as architects must understand how the chickens will use the space. It’s the same with the metaverse; we must know who we’re designing for. This background in architecture that we both have, is incredibly helpful when designing for digital space in the metaverse.
FM: It’s true what Juan says… I remember when I was in university there was a project that we had to complete, where we each had to pick an animal and design a space for that animal. I ended up designing a house for a turtle. And it’s true that architecture school teaches one how to be a user-centric thinker. And that’s the difference that we get through our education, which may or may not be evident in the designs of someone who was not educated in the same way, who’s also practicing in the metaverse.
JOS: Several years ago I designed and built a chicken coop. I studied everything that there is to know about chickens during the process. The same is true of the metaverse; you need to know who it is you’re designing for. And architects have a certain sensitivity toward that.
I’ve read that you have little interest in recreating real-world buildings in the metaverse. Why is this, and what are your central aims with your undertakings in it?
FM: It’s so much more fun to create in an open-ended way. It’s not that we don’t create digital twins; we’re working on one right now. But it’s useful to have a digital twin in some cases. Sotheby’s has recreated its London headquarters in the metaverse, which I don’t think was necessary. But if they wanted to show clients a virtual walk-through of their space in the metaverse; when seen that way, it does make sense for them, or another such organization, to have a digital twin in the metaverse. So depending on the purpose, it makes sense, or not, to have a digital twin of a physical space, or a building. As creators, it’s more fun to have the freedom to think and design openly, rather than recreating an IRL space in the metaverse.
You’ve both been in this space for some time… In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge of onboarding new people to web3? Why is important for you to emphasize the decentralization aspect of the metaverse?
FM: You are correct that I’ve been in the space for a long time but admittedly it was in the crypto side of web3, back in, let’s say 2017-18. I only found out about NFTs through Beeple, like many other people, back around 2019-2020. And I didn’t take it too seriously myself. I saw people posting a random picture and people minting them as NFTs, and then saw what Beeple was doing which was really inspiring… Being early meant I was just more native to the crypto world, which did indeed make my transition to the metaverse much easier.
But the biggest challenge really is onboarding people to web3, in terms of making them feel safe. It’s not a space of just scams. Wallets; ledgers; buzzwords… none of this is very welcoming. There also weren’t many women in this space back in the early days. There’s a Google center here in Madrid and I used to go there to attend lectures and debates about web3 and crypto; and I really wanted to learn about these things… But I remember being the only woman. The biggest barrier that there is just managing crypto wallets and safety, and we need to simplify the buzzwords so that people feel more welcome, for sure.
You are definitely correct in that NFTs were pushed through the mainstream through Beeple. But the space is full of so many different people, each with their own interests; there’s a music side, the design side, and the ‘crypto-art’ side of the space. Everyone tends to find their own corner… The people who are traditionally in the design world, IRL, are also not necessarily invested in the design side of web3 in the same way; there’s still a big divide…
FM: You are correct. But even in the past year thing have changed so much in terms of design in the metaverse. Before last year, it was still full mostly of ‘crypto-bros’, so design in the metaverse is still a very new concept, even for people already in web3. Music, art, and architecture that are now being built with blockchain weren’t there a few years ago. It was so subtle. When I found out that Decentraland has been around since 2016, I had to ask myself how I hadn’t heard of it before even though I was already in the space. It’s still maturing.
The metaverse took quite a hard beating at the end of 2021, when Meta stepped onto the scene, and again in the spring of 2022, during the—let’s call it—crypto crash when Ethereum plummeted and the war in Ukraine began. Crypto is increasingly correlated to the global stock markets since earlier this year. It’s not been the best year for the metaverse in the wider popular culture even as the space continues to grow. What in your opinion, keeps people from joining the metaverse, today?
JOS: I think that every big news at the beginning has its hype phase—and that the metaverse has now gone through its own hype phase. Everyone wanted to know what was happening and going on. And now everyone knows about it. And now people are just curious, even if the hype is gone. People want to know more about it, even though the bigger wave of news hype, is over. It’s slowly being built, the metaverse, and that’s only going to get bigger.
FM: I would say that I have a contrary view. I analyze the space on the number of messages I get across social media who are curious about what we’re doing at SpacesDAO. The number of times I’ve been contacted more recently has certainly died down. In 2021 everyone wanted to know about it, but the people interested in building there now are the ones that are truly interested. In the early days, I had the feeling people were more interested in the financial side of things; but now I see students who are genuinely interested in this as a career path.
JOS: It used to be hard to find students interested in the metaverse. But now we’re getting more and more portfolios of students who are interested in working with us, as interns.
People such as Krista Kim have carved out a space for themself by attaching different monikers or ideas to their doings in the metaverse, such as meditation and mental health…
What else is there to get excited about concerning the use of the metaverses, beyond meditation, in relation to architecture? And I ask as someone who owns metaverse real estate—what is the most useful aspect of the metaverse when it comes to architecture, in terms of what people use it for?
FM: That’s a great question. The one that excited me the most was music. It’s so cool to attend concerts in the metaverse, such as the Travis Scott one in Fortnite. Our first project was a music venue for RockNation. And it was exciting to think about enjoying music and dancing with people, at that time, during the pandemic, but without risking our lives. So—music is what most excited me about the metaverse, originally. And during the pandemic, it really showed new ways of connecting and being together, but virtually. But there’s more.
JOS: There’s so much on the technical side to improve, too. Right now, to experience it, it’s amazing to connect with different people, such as at concerts. But the technology still has a way to go, in terms of its fluidity and use of use. But I agree; music is a really cool aspect.
When it comes to creating spaces, such as the concert and music venue SpacesDAO created for Decentraland… was that an NFT? How does it work when you’re commissioned to design a space? Is it minted as an NFT? How does ownership of your designs, work?
FM: We’re commissioned to do works, and in these commissions, we’re entitled to deliver a certain set of parameters, and that commission’s deliverable is never an NFT. But that’s also why we’re doing this project with MetaMundo; to create our very first work as a collectible. None of our projects are owned by us—always by the client. So unlike NFT-native artists, who create works and mint them as NFTs; we create a space or design, and it’s owned by the commissioner, and we do not actually own the rights to mint them as NFTs. We in our own exploration of NFTs… we’re approaching this aspect of web3, from a more traditional architecture vantage point. We’re no different in this regard from any other architecture firm, except that our designs are created for, and built within, the metaverse, as opposed to IRL.
Architecture in the metaverse can be achieved not only in different platforms such as Voxels and Decentraland—each with its own aesthetics and advantages and disadvantages. When designing, I understand you often use Blender, if I am correct… Could you discuss how you design, from an interoperable point of view? How do you approach designing for different platforms? Is there one that you prefer, and approach differs from the others?
JOS: It depends on the project. If we build for Spatial, the model can be used for many different platforms. If we build for The Sandbox, it’s only for that platform. So, we really don’t know how to achieve interoperability just yet, beyond minting our work as NFTs. 20 years ago, architects only used AutoCAD, right? But over time, over the past 20 years, new software for architects practicing IRL was developed that is very common among all today’s architects. I think the same will become true of software that metaverse architects use, too.
How do you define interoperability?
FM: I remember when the Metaverse Standards Forum was brought together, and that was an exciting day. When commissioned to do a project, a client can and often does change their mind in terms of the metaverse that they want their designed space to be accessed in. At first it’s Spatial and two months later it’s The SandBox. Those questions can be very frustrating as clients don’t often know that they have to pick one specific metaverse. The non-land-based metaverse don’t work the same as the land-based one, which are an entirely different story.
Interoperability is in my opinion, the ability to use your different assets across different metaverses, and that’s where NFT technology comes in. With NFTs, I’m acquiring a skin or a wearable and I want to be able use them in other platforms… And at the same time, I want to take what I’ve invested in one metaverse and have that in other metaverse platforms. NFTs are the technology that will allow this future iteration of interoperability to manifest…
As an architect—what differentiates a land-based metaverse from one that’s not land-based?
FM: To even experience architecture in a land-based metaverse, you first have to own land. And then you can upload your assets on that piece of land, though you are still defined and limited in your ability to interact with it, in regards to that piece of land’s size. They each have their own limitations based on the width, and height, of that piece of land. Non-land-based metaverses are definitely more accessible.
What do you think will happen with the hardware, literally used to access the metaverse, such a 5G-enabled phones, and the much discussed and anticipated Apple Vision Pro, roll out across the world and become commonplace? Without a headset, most of which are PC based, and without strong enough phones to be able to pop in and have a casual conversation—the metaverse still requires a bit of knowledge to ‘get into’. People ask me how to get there… Where do you encourage people to get started?
FM: The easiest way to get into the metaverse is with a desktop browser-based platform. Depending on what time of phone one owns, entering from a phone can be frustrating. It’s not fun to get stuck in a glitchy or slow metaverse, and someone’s first time there should be fun and easy. The technology will keep evolving and make it easier to use. The Apple Vision Pro will be really important to the adoption of the metaverse and I’m excited for this new hardware. Right now, the best experience and the best medium for first use is a web browser.
If the metaverse is more VR as opposed to AR or browser-based, would if affect how do you design space for it?
FM: Definitely. VR headsets have changed how we design for the metaverse. As architects we design spaces and we don’t experience the full-scale of our designs until the building is even built, IRL. However, with VR we can do that as we’re building while feeling the scale of it too. That’s what’s exciting about the future of design, in the metaverse. More’s possible.
We are really early in the development of web3 and the metaverse; which is exciting because it means that we will able to look back and identify people like yourselves who are in many ways the pioneers in terms of professionalizing the practice of architecture in it. What will you be most proud of, let’s say, in five or maybe ten years, in terms of what you’ve achieved? Both in terms of what you’ve built and the standards that you’ve set?
JOS: Working in something that is so new and going to evolve… it’s something that we love. I feel very lucky to be in the space and doing what I’m doing.
FM: Just the essence of what we’re doing is so inspiring. I’ll be excited to look back in the future, at this time, and know that I had the courage to jump into the space, so early. It’s still a new world, right now; but I’ll look back in the future and be proud of our first few projects. because they’ll mark our own trajectory. Especially ‘Boss Beauties’ we worked on in Spatial; it was for International Women’s Day. It was inspiring to be part of. Mostly, I’ll be proud to look back and know we were doing something meaningful, and that we pioneered the space.