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The mechanics of place: Landscape and architecture in virtual worlds

The mechanics of place: Landscape and architecture in virtual worlds
Bjarke Liboriussen


Institute of Literature, Media and Cultural Studies, University of Southern Denmark, 5230 Odense, DENMARK.


Contemporary virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, are encountered as buildings and landscapes rather than abstract spaces. How will it enrich our understanding of virtual worlds to focus on their experiential and theoretical affinity with off-line architecture and landscape? To answer this question, the thesis puts forth a vocabulary, i.e., set of inter-related keywords through which similarities and tensions between architectural discourse and media studies discourse are explored. The keywords, or foci, are: Place, Space, Image, Body, Map, Landscape, Building and Worldview. Architectural discourse is framed by a certain understanding of architecture, namely, that architecture orients humanity in the world in a profound sense setting architecture apart from engineering. This mode of thought is particularly strong in Le Corbusier and his contemporary heirs, e.g., Juhani Pallasmaa. Postmodern and deconstructivist tendencies, as well as architectural discourse’s recent fascination with digital technology, also play parts in the thesis. Theorisation is informed by a 14 month, virtual ethnography of collective building projects in Second Life.

Although many aspects of virtual worlds fit nicely with critical, architectural-philosophical discourse (Heidegger, Debord, Augé, Koolhaas) much of that discourse rests on a broad, and ultimately unsustainable, notion of placelessness. Virtual world users form strong attachments of an architectural nature, i.e., attachments to landscapes and buildings. Landscape connoisseurship is widespread and many users invest considerable amounts of time, money and creativity in long- term projects with the explicit goal of obtaining a sense of home, or dwelling. In short, virtual worlds are what architect Rem Koolhaas labels Junkspace, but infused with the attachments and creative passions of their users.