Bonus Levels (Essay Version)
2016, based on the series of site-specific simulations developed between 2013 and 2016.
︎︎︎ All chapters are available to browse on the Bonus Levels web archive.
︎︎︎ Originally published online on AVANT.ORG
︎︎︎ Abridged print version on after.us
It is not London – but mirrored plazas of sheerest crystal, the avenues atomic lightning, the sky a super-cooled gas, as the Eye chases its own gaze through the labyrinth, leaping quantum gaps that are causation, contingency, chance. Electric phantoms are flung into being, examined, dissected, infinitely iterated.
⸺ William Gibson & Bruce Sterling,
The Difference Engine (1990)
1. Art World
The Bonus Levels project is a continuation of architecture through other means: an ongoing series of fictitious, utopian landscapes conceived as site-specific simulations. Rendered in first-person, players explore London and its cultural institutions as a reconfigured map of urban networks and anomalies. Each level brings together distant locations in space and time, flattening distinctions between famous and forgotten, public and private, emerging and established.
The term Bonus Levels is borrowed from the extraneous stages often hidden within video games, which create exceptional scenarios where spatial, temporal, or rule-based conventions no longer apply. In the game environment, the programmer must explicitly define all laws, maps and behaviors. However, in the early history of video game development, hardware constraints frequently lead to repetitive level design as a means to conserve memory. To escape monotony, developers would insert secret stages, spaces that operated outside the game’s narrative or established physics. By subverting the internal logic of the game engine, these zones drew attention to its underlying mechanics, after which players could return to the conventional levels with a heightened awareness of the virtual world.
First known bonus stage from the arcade game Rally-X (1980) by Japanese developer, Namco
Bonus Levels translates this means for generating awareness from a device for virtual entertainment to one of progressive civic engagement. In the city, every piece of architecture and infrastructure is the outward manifestation of socio-economic forces. Even in times of rapid urban redevelopment, these entrenched patterns are slow to change. Curatorial hierarchies determine the public face of cultural institutions, while a genealogy of land ownership etches territorial boundaries into the urban landscape. In Bonus Levels, the architecture of art is appropriated for its civic symbolism: as a manifestation of the spatial distribution of culture and a vessel for creative activity.
A model of the art world, Bonus Levels comprises a synthetic universe where objects of pleasure and status are on display. Often commissioned for galleries, websites, and institutions, the atmosphere of each level shifts between idealism and critique depending on its site of exhibition. Taking art production as a subject is not merely self-referential; the art world serves as a case study for a network of technologies and social alliances that drive institutionalized power. With the growing prevalence of immaterial labour and distribution, the site of production is no longer the studio or factory floor, but a totality of interconnected environments which would otherwise remain spatially and temporally isolated. The Bonus Level renders this multifaceted ecosystem as a coherent whole, in real time.
Rather than merely providing a teleological account of urban space, the Bonus Level attends to performative and evolutionary qualities of the city. Akin to what biologists might term colonizing behavior, artists and gallery spaces establish themselves within inaccessible, post-industrial, or otherwise undesirable zones, and continuously migrate to more distant areas as conditions become untenable. By foregrounding artist communities within the urban ecology, Bonus Levels depict the ad-hoc spatial tactics and situational opportunism essential to the survival and autonomy of these collectives.
Working their way up: Limehouse Dock, Gustave Doré. London: A Pilgrimage (1872)
The creation myth of London is one of upward mobility: the belief that the individual can transcend the class system. A history of this condition can be traced to the city’s Industrial Revolution, during which the literary novel saw wider cultural adoption as a mass-media format through which political awareness could spread. Accordingly, it was through Victorian literature that the escapist allegory of social mobility was refined and fixed within the urban consciousness, and where it could be habitually re-deployed as a device for political rhetoric and social pacification.
The Victorian reader inhabited their own virtual worlds where, through the gaze of a Dickensian protagonist, they might divert themselves from a world of technological and cultural upheaval. The computer game of today has this same potential for captivation: to offer a world for the subconscious to fill. After a day toiling at the factory or office, the worker can dream of owning a palace.
2. The Poetics of Property
It is in the realm of architecture, that modifications in aesthetic production are most dramatically visible, and that their theoretical problems have been most centrally raised and articulated… Of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship.
– Fredric Jameson,
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (1924) from his book of same name, published 1933.
The intent of the Bonus Level is to reconcile the superficial aesthetics of urban space with its rarefied, obscured economics. As Jameson notes, architecture’s dependence on commissions excludes architects from dictating the rules of a structure’s production. In fact, designers’ social ideals rarely coincide with economic reality, barring political necessity. A case exemplified plainly following World War II, where the need to rebuild post-war Europe and to establish the civic identity of newly independent post-colonial nations, led to widespread adoption of Modernist city planning and public housing projects. Architects who had developed utopian city plans in the interwar period now, remarkably, had the opportunity to realize their cosmopolitan visions.
Modernist urbanism: Le Corbusier’s Plan for Chandigarh, capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana.
The most expansive of which, Le Corbusier’s 1924 plan for Ville Radieuse, was a project to design nothing short of the urban ideal. And as the war closed, thawing the global construction market, political will for Corbusier’s master plan would arrive. In 1947 a war-depleted Britain relinquished its hold over its Indian Empire, partitioning the territory along sectarian lines. Divided among India and Pakistan, the contested Punjab region would soon be in need of a new capital. Though an unlikely candidate, the death of Chandigarh’s original architect led India’s Prime Minister Jawahar Nehru to Le Corbusier and his model city. After his selection in 1952 to continue the new capitol’s planning, Corbusier would adapt much of his philosophy from Ville Radieuse during his design of Chandigarh, the first planned city. Nehru’s words now seem a conceit after the hundreds of thousands killed during the ensuing sectarian riots, but also serve as a stark illustration of how the powerful mold urban space.
Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation's faith in the future.
Palace of Justice, one of Corbusier’s six civic buildings in Chandigarh.
In contrast to Le Corbusier’s utopian schemes, which necessitated immense public spending, the socio-economic realities which today’s architects and planners face are entirely different. The neoliberal shift toward privatized culture has almost completely eroded the social principles that gave rise to the municipal housing and public projects of the late 20th century. In turn, the decline in these commissions has transformed architects from public servants into private entrepreneurs, competing to capture the attention of a diminishing pool of clients.
3. Computer-Aided Decline
Typical workflow within the Dynamo node-based CAD environment.
The structural and aesthetic sophistication of recent computer-aided architecture has only served to exaggerate its over-valuation, further diverting architects’ attention towards formal experimentation and sculptural complexity. Many of the most visible players – the so-called ‘starchitects’ – disassociate themselves from any critical position on the material conditions of construction. Witness Zaha Hadid on the worker fatalities at the building sites of the 2022 Qatar World Cup where she won a bid for the central al-Wakrah stadium. When asked to comment on labour conditions, Hadid was quoted in the
Guardian as saying “It’s not my duty as an architect […] I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.” Sadly, this tendency toward insulating themselves from responsibility has become commonplace among the select architects with opportunities to design our public spaces. For the architect detached from the physical consequences of construction, human bodies are merely a means to materialize computer renderings.
Screen capture from CATIA V3 design environment by Dassault Systèmes (1988).
As practitioners with a tacit mandate to embrace contemporary design technique, architects have continuously assimilated advances in CAD software since the inception of 3D graphics in the 1970s. These new tools led to an increase in aesthetic complexity that, along with a growing recognition of visual art’s utility as an investment vehicle, produced a generation of iconic museums dedicated to spectacular displays of form. This confluence of cultural institution and technology is best exemplified by The Guggenheim Bilbao, completed in 1997 by Frank Gehry using CATIA software from Dassault Systèmes – a French military contractor whose advanced aerospace technology enabled the design and fabrication of the museum’s complex geometry.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed within Gehry Technologies’ Digital Project CAD software (adapted from CATIA, under license from Dassault Systèmes).
To the computer, there is little difference between rendering an aircraft fuselage and a museum facade. Yet in the city, space takes on far greater significance than its pure geometry would indicate. Henri Lefebvre, the French intellectual best known for extending Marxist theory into urban scholarship, focused his writings on understanding the latent politics governing the operation of cities. In The Production of Space, he proposes that all of human territory is comprised of a tripartite structure, dominated by what he termed conceived space: the policies and city plans of urbanists, architects and bureaucrats. These spatial instruments of state power are ‘designed to manipulate those who exist within them.’ Superimposed on this is perceived space, the material reality in which people interact with their physical surroundings. Finally, lived space is the mental zone containing the collective dreams and memories of citizens. Lefebvre argues that the continual interplay between these cultural spheres allows society to reproduce itself, and that inhabitants of the city only gain agency through understanding the mechanism of their environment’s production.
Epitomizing the capitalist tactics of urban spatial production, London and New York both treat land as a finite resource from which maximal value can be extracted. These exploits occur both horizontally through property boundaries, and vertically by way of the skyscraper. Invention of the steel-framed skyscraper in 1884 with Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, and its subsequent development in New York City, gave new form to the citizen’s perception of property relations, condensing wealth to a degree previously unimagined. The dystopian symbolism of these towering edifices exists most dramatically in film, dating back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where the wealthy live in airy penthouses while workers crowd the shadowy streets below. This vision persists in the archetypal, upwardly mobile New Yorker who dreams of transcending the urban grind with a penthouse overlooking the park.
Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)
Still from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987)
Still from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987)
Skyscrapers have come to signify wealth and social status, a visible claim over the horizontal boundaries of the individual plot, block, address, and postcode. Moreover, this pattern of proprietorship is not merely a historical artifact, but constitutive of modern-day cities. London’s socio-architectural record is inscribed in its streets as clusters of agglomerated villages, whose interstices have accumulated a soaring urban superstructure. Throughout its modernization, the city’s fundamental mechanism of spatial production has remained unchanged. As a consequence of this saturation, the Londoner’s fantasy is to possess house and garden - to become a landlord, the culmination of a social prestige whose expression is exclusively territorial. In Lefebvre’s eyes, London’s patterns of land ownership are simply reproductions of its bygone aristocracy, a kind of compressed feudalism where peasants have become debtors.
De architectura, the oldest surviving text on the art of building, begins with author-architect Vitruvius’ fawning dedication to the Emperor Augustus:
While your divine intelligence and will, Imperator Caesar, were engaged in acquiring the right to command the world, and while all foreign nations were in subjection awaiting your beck and call, ... I hardly dared, in view of your serious employments, to publish my writings and long considered ideas on architecture, for fear of subjecting myself to your displeasure.
Though the attention of the architectural field was once determined wholly by the state, redistribution of power has throughout history found architects recapitulating this pattern of soliciting those of influence, creating for the powerful infrastructure that serves those in power.
It is this hegemony of spatial production that the Bonus Level seeks to undermine. By rendering the fields of property, power, and production within a coexistent plane, the Bonus Level enables the viewer to experience the spatialized exchange between power, imagination, and the agency of both those who create and occupy space. This virtual polis reconfigures the relations of power delineated in Lefebvre’s Production of Space, and with its boundaries dissolved, the city’s architecture may be once again reclaimed as public commons.
Sky Line (2014) - video trailer.
4. Digital Drifters
In a dérive (drift) one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there…
– Guy Debord, founder, Situationist International, Theory of the Dérive (1958)
Debord relates the dérive to the leisurely activities of the flâneur: the idler, the explorer, the connoisseur of the Parisian street first identified in the 19th century by Charles Baudelaire and later in the 20th by Walter Benjamin. The dérive is a key activity in the wider Situationist practice of psychogeography, which Debord describes in his Critique of Urban Geography as “the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Unlike quotidian interaction with the city, dérives encourage participants to cultivate a playful self-awareness in concert with the flux of urban life.
By mapping the city through playful, ad-hoc encounters with the city, Debord sought to define a Unitary Urbanism: zones and passages defined by their atmospheric similitude rather than established Euclidian, territorial, or historic boundaries. For Debord, Unitary Urbanism gestured toward an idealized metropolis, which seamlessly blended its infrastructural and aesthetic constituents into an inseparable whole such that citizens could no longer distinguish utility from leisure. This would be a new city generated by the dérive, its topography reimagined as an architecture of play.
Mapping the city by “atmospheric unities.” Guy Debord, Psychogeographic Guide of Paris (1957).
Following Debord’s psychogeographic approach, Bonus Levels reject a wholly functional account of urban space, one that isolates aesthetic experience from context. Through the use of real-time simulation software, each Bonus Level looks to model urban terrain as an interface for playful encounter. The simulation medium thus marries the psychological involvement of literary experience with the sensorial immersion of film. Moreover, virtual worlds permit the multiplication of cinematic devices to produce infinite fields of cameras, microphones, processes, and interfaces – all of which serve to reinforce the illusion of a self-contained universe.
Yet the simulation brings with it a peculiar sense of dislocation: the anxiety of being lost in familiar territory. The geographical concept of the genius loci – the unique characteristics of a point in space and time – no longer applies in the Bonus Level. Built from scratch, it exists as a skeuomorphic landscape, its sense of place derived from the familiar sites of everyday life. It is a deliberately distorted model: through collage, disjunction, and relocation, its rearrangement conjures alternative readings of its original structure. The Bonus Level is not simply a game but a three-dimensional essay, unfolding in non-linear time.
It is precisely this sensitized state for which the dérive prepares the wanderer. The player automatically assumes the role of a flâneur as they take the controls of the Bonus Level, transforming a genderless, ageless, wandering eye into the surrogate self. Activated by this radical freedom of movement, the world becomes dispossessed of its formal geometry and transformed to a lush, sensorial landscape to explore.
5. City of the Self
The Bonus Level effectively begins after the game has finished. Free from goals, the player’s sole task is to invent their own purpose. While Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh embodied the spatialization of power through its rigid geometric composition and civic institutions, the displaced environment of the Bonus Level engenders a liberated psychology in the player. When occupying a world of solitude, spatial politics becomes an act of introspection rather than an exercise of power.
The player enters the Bonus Level, alone. From the digital wilderness, only fragments of the city are visible. Wandering, the player gains a familiarity with the psychogeographic palimpsest: its coded objects, institutions, rituals, and territories. As the player starts to inhabit the simulation, they can populate this world with its own consciousness.
London Underground train carriage under construction. Bonus Levels Chapter 6: Sky Line (2014).
Digital systems borrow terminology and other relational devices from architecture to make immaterial and abstract forms accessible, and consequently we perceive digital technologies through familiar artifacts drawn from our pre-digital world. The monitor traces solid walls of light with a pen of infinite ink and we passage the information landscape, address to address, aboard computation engines that assemble elaborate worlds before our very eyes.
Despite the Bonus Level’s reliance on technological abstraction, each simulation remains firmly grounded as a consequence of meticulous site-specific modeling. Here, the construction of virtual architecture is drawn to replicate that of its physical counterpart in exacting detail. It is a sedimentary process, built up layer by layer: textures over geometry, objects over interiors, superstructure over infrastructure, vegetation over topography, and weather over the world.
The Royal Academy under construction. Bonus Levels Chapter 9: Unreal Estate (2015).
While physical structures persist through time, their interpretation changes as successive generations produce new, increasingly virtual, forms of spatial literacy. With the import of digital technologies into every sphere of urban life, an unprecedented degree of information is fed to the contemporary flâneur: lifestyles, opportunities, and social cues delivered in all possible media – a world of endless opportunity to sculpt one’s identity and project that self back onto the environment. Ultimately, the role of the Bonus Level is not to promote fantasy, but to unify the urban experience into a single conceptual map that delineates the paths through which information and power flow. This is a city built for being lost: a utopia designed for play.
6. Selected Chapters
All chapters on view at www.bonuslevels.net.
Chapter 1: Collective Tower Art Licks Weekend 2013 at The White Building)View video walkthrough in full.
The invention of the skyscraper in Chicago and its subsequent development in New York City transformed a practical typology into an icon of urban wealth, making it the ultimate symbol of the vertically stratified society. In dystopian visions of the city – going back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – the wealthy live in penthouses while workers are crowded into the shadows at street level.
A Collective Tower inverts this relationship by creating a skyscraper solely for twenty-one independent galleries and artist-run project spaces from across London. Unable to afford rising real estate rates, these spaces are forced to occupy the fringes of the city. The tower draws them together, with each floor dedicated to a gallery participating in the Art Licks Weekend 2013 festival. The structure and curatorial concept of each physical space is reflected in its virtual double.
Chapter 2: Delirious New Wick (Hackney Wick takeover at the V&A, February 2014)View video walkthrough in full.
London’s 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford is the epitome of contemporary masterplanning: the choreographed regeneration of a post-industrial area into an economically thriving zone centred on creative industries. The park itself contains iconic structures commissioned for the games: the Olympic Stadium, Velodrome and Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower for the multinational steel conglomerate ArcelorMittal.
Delirious New Wick explores the disjunction between the masterplan and the adjacent area of Hackney Wick, a place with an unusually high density of artist-run colonies. Teleporter Pavilions beam the player into inaccessible areas - up into the voids of Anish Kapoor’s tower and into the Velodrome flying over the town below. Here, the player can take a critic’s role, assessing the government-endorsed regeneration strategies as they witness conflicts between the area’s past and future.
Chapter 4: Shiva’s Dreaming (Re:Presence at STO Werkstatt, May 2014)View video walkthrough in full.
Shiva’s Dreaming uses the Crystal Palace to symbolise the transience of technology and its physical artifacts. Originally built in Hyde Park to showcase Victorian engineering at the Great Exhibition of 1851, this oversized glasshouse was later moved to South London before burning down decades later.
Accompanied by fragments of video and dialogue from Werner Herzog’s film House of Glass (1976), each element in the world explores the creation and destruction of simulated architecture. Players roam around a digital replica of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham on the night of 30 November 1936, just as the building is slowly being consumed by fire. As players explore the smoke-filled scene, their movements shatter the crystalline architecture into cascades of fracturing glass, fracturing in slow motion.
Chapter 6: Sky Line (Art Licks Weekend 2014 at the White Building)View video walkthrough in full.
Sky Line proposes a utopia where the vision of London is not of financial skyscrapers, but infinite access. Modelled as a floating version of the Circle Line, each station is based on a location participating in the Art Licks Weekend 2014 festival, with their physical architecture transformed into idealized digital models. Travelers have unlimited admission to the hovering trains that move between independent galleries, domestic exhibitions, subterranean spaces, and fragments of the city.
Voiceovers are collaged from films about travel and memory, including Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 (2004) and Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky. The simulation is programmed to loop with a specific diurnal period: each day lasts for ten minutes, the same amount of time it takes for the train to complete its journey around the circular railway.
Chapter 8: Dalston, Mon Amour (Open Source 2015 in Gillett Square, Dalston)View video walkthrough in full.
Forgotten nightclubs. Neon-lit music venues. Turkish snooker clubs. Wild gardens. Fragments of the well-loved East London neighborhood of Dalston will one day disappear, replaced with the same generic residential and commercial developments that chase demand for property and entertainment. Though this process may be inevitable, these places may yet have a digital afterlife.
Dalston, Mon Amour exaggerates the sense of collective amnesia brought about by perpetual redevelopment in the area while paying tribute to its character. As players roam through a post-apocalyptic vision of Dalston’s of the near future, a voiceover from Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) speaks about the nature of memory: a gradual, but relentless, sense of forgetting that accompanies any form of regenerated cityscape.
Chapter 9: Unreal Estate (Dazed Emerging Artist Award 2015 at the Royal Academy)View video walkthrough in full.
The Royal Academy of Arts has just been sold to a Chinese oligarch who has rebuilt the estate on their private island. Created for the Dazed Emerging Artist Award exhibition at the RA, this site-specific simulation is based on surveyor’s’ drawings and a text from the Russian edition of Tatler magazine on how to recruit an army of household staff (translated into Mandarin and subtitled in English).
Set against the backdrop of the UK’s current crisis in affordable housing. This chapter plays on the precarious position of the RA itself, which is currently engaged in a special rental contract from the government to lease the property for £1 per year. Here, helicopters converge on the penthouse helipad of a vast neoclassical complex. Within the grounds, Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor sculptures gleam in the sunlight. The humid summer air condenses into mist that reveals the estate’s surrounding laser alarm systems. Welcome to the world of desire.
Cover image, Bonus Levels world map in its current state (2013 - ongoing).
︎︎︎ Visit the archive website here.
︎︎︎ The video essay Pyramid Schemes (2018) continues the exploration of architecture in virtual space.