#103: Fly Into the Mystery

Starting Monday 11/4, I’ll be hosting the first of four sessions of an online reading group about the relationship between architecture, the internet, and the built environment. It’s called “The Digital Transformation of Physical Space.”

I’m thrilled to be leading the group and I’ve chosen readings that I expect to spark fascinating conversations and broaden our shared understanding of architecture’s role in the internet era. The main book we’ll be reading is Learning from Las Vegas by Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour—a personal favorite that I frequently reference in this newsletter. The weekly sessions will be held live online via Zoom meetings.

If you enroll in the course, you’ll get a firsthand look at some of the main themes that I cover here in the newsletter, and an opportunity to explore them in much greater depth. Space is limited, and we do have a couple of early bird discount spots available for readers ($100 off). Use the discount link below to enroll. 


If the price is outside of your budget but you’re still interested, there are limited scholarship spots available as well. Email info@otherinter.net with details about your interest and financial situation.

I’ve never quite understood the appeal of escape rooms. I’ve done one in my life, and it was fun, but now I feel like I’ve checked that experience off my list. This article by Rachel Sugar finally explained their allure to me (it’s Vox, of course it “explained” them): Escape rooms temporarily simplify reality by turning it into a set of straightforward puzzles to be solved. “You don’t know what the pattern is, but you can rest assured there is one,” Sugar writes. “For one hour, if you think hard enough, you get to live in a world that makes sense.” That doesn’t sound like anything new—most video games could be described the same way—but Sugar argues that escape rooms are different because the hero is actually you, in your own body, and not a digital avatar that represents you. Weirdly, though, that particular aspect of escape rooms makes them seem anachronistic, and out of step with how most of us actually experience reality now. Today, doing something as your embodied self, without any digital mask or symbolic mediation, feels like the ultimate LARP.

Escape rooms suggest that we crave a particularly rationalized kind of environmental design, an order that will save us from the confusion and anomie of everyday life. The name seems like a double entendre: If escape rooms are also escapist in the way Sugar describes, then aren’t we really escaping into them, rather than from them? In Venkatesh Rao’s masterpiece on escapism, he makes the point that games and other constructed environments are no less real than what we call reality, because reality itself just another layer of mediation and simplification that is merely less obvious (“geography is a far stronger filter bubble than the Internet"). He argues that escaped realities are “play environments that make it safer to exercise preferred freedoms while suspending dangerous ones” and escape rooms would seem to fit this bill.

There’s a paradox here though: Escape rooms reflect a desire to simplify and focus by removing degrees of freedom, while other designed environments can amplify freedom along specific vectors (also by removing additional degrees of freedom). If “real life” feels overwhelming and unfocused in contrast to those spaces, we should remember that the same dynamics operate everywhere. In 1997, the architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter wrote that we are “hectored mercilessly by design” and that “design has now penetrated to, even threatens to replace, the existential density, the darkness, the slow intractable mystery of what was once the human social world.” This is probably so pervasive by now that we don’t even notice it. Reflecting upon the escape room article, Rob Horning compares the rooms’ logic to that of the internet, where “you can enjoy the feeling of being propelled by the assurance…that there really is an intelligent design to the world you’re being shown.” But that all assumes that the rest of life isn’t that way. Instead of presenting us with reductive logic puzzles, a more transformational escape room would add, not subtract, and in doing so might immerse us in the slow intractable mystery of the world.