In this essay British architect and academic Dr. Timothy Brittain-Catlin presents the work of Space Popular, an emerging practice exploring the meaning of and methods behind deploying virtual reality techniques in the architectural design process.
Architectural practice, especially in the UK, is moving fast into a realm where history plays as much a part as medium. But the ways in which architects work have been transformed entirely from those of the past, generating a fundamental conflict: how in practice does design through virtual reality use history? In the earliest days of fly-throughs we all realised that we could show our work to clients in a way that even the least plan-literate could understand. We could develop details three-dimensionally and from different angles, even representing different times of day. But what next? How do we engage historical knowledge and experience of buildings?
This was the question that launched Space Popular, a London-based practice established by Architectural Association (AA) graduates Fredrik Hellberg and Lara Lesmes in 2013. They spend their time differently from most young architects; they don’t, for example, design small objects, although their studio sports one of the fine mint-green steel chairs they produced for the Infinity Spa in Bangkok in 2015, their best known completed project to date. Like many others of their generation (and before and since), they have entered a large number of competitions. But what has marked out their work so far is the remarkable way in which they have confronted the challenges and potential of virtual reality in architecture head on – to make something new from it that represents the layering of experiences that many architects seek.
Lesmes explains it like this: architecture can be experienced entirely separately from the problem solving that goes on behind the scenes. Virtual reality to date has tended to follow a simple pattern: you design the building in one form or another, according to the parameters thrown up by the situation, and then you create the virtual reality to demonstrate, perhaps refine, the results. But, Lesmes says, you can also start from the experience and work backwards to the building. This is the one thing you couldn’t really do before, at any rate not to the same extent; and this is the aspect of it that Space Popular is now developing.
The Glass Chain, an exhibition at Sto Werkstatt in London's Clerkenwell, demonstrates where they are going with this. Its centrepiece is a tall screen faced with StoVentec glass – that is, a toughened glass panel printed with coloured ceramic inks and fixed over insulation to a carrier board. The whole of one face of the panel, about three metres high, has been decorated in a riotous collage of architectural forms in vivid colours that includes towers, stairs, arcades, rusticated blocks, and crystalline forms in somewhat gothic forms – dogtooth mouldings and the like. The scale, says Hellberg, is about 1:100. That means that it represents a building about 300 metres high. Of course the StoVentec panel is flat, although it has a luxuriant sparkle to it. But at special events held at the exhibition, visitors can don HTC headsets and see a three-dimensional representation of it: the flat steps suddenly pop backwards to form an auditorium buried within the wall, for example. (It is interesting to note that Hellberg comes from a craft background, as the founder and director of YNG, the Swedish Society for Crafts and Design, and has never seen architectural ornament as a ‘flat’ thing.)
The point of this is that the virtual building seen with the VR headset is therefore as real an experience as the glass panel you can touch. And there are other aspects too, notably the fact that these installations are time-dependent. Space Popular are perhaps best known for their vibrant printed cotton wall hangings: a huge one hung from the centre of the Florence Hall at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London earlier this year. These too are highly detailed, made up from architectural elements. In fact, a set made for the Architectural Association’s (AA) Christmas Party last year was composed of elements from the facades of the school’s premises in Bedford Square. Part of the point of them was that they were to be seen and associated with a specific occasion, and that much of the symbolism of the details in these sheets (which were wrapped around columns to form a kind of hypostyle) was related to that moment only. It comes as no surprise therefore that Space Popular have designed and made kimonos that are to be worn for specific occasions; then—as Lesmes says—the people who experience these artefacts associate them afterwards with that event, adding to the experience of them and, in turn, their significance. They presented an early installation like this in 2014 as part of Amy Croft and Adam Nathaniel Furman’s Re.presence: How to See Architecture exhibition: Furman is his architectural ‘godfather’, Hellberg has said.
In fact, Hellberg and Lesmes explain that the origins of many of these ideas came from their friends at the AA. Hellberg’s fourth-year unit master was Oliver Domeisen, who introduced them specifically to the work of Gottfried Semper, an architect never usually mentioned in British architectural education because of the dominance there of the gothic revival. The traditional critique of Semper is of his distinction between the structural and the non-structural. But Domeisen saw that once the designer is liberated altogether from the notion of the structural—those practical parameters behind every conventional scheme—then it becomes possible to explore Semper’s ideas about the ornamented construction of surfaces in a much freer way. The 19th Century ideas that interested Domeisen were echoed in the history courses that Hellberg attended: I was one of the lecturers, but the other was Benny O’Looney, who is fondly remembered by students everywhere for his knowledge of and enthusiasm for London buildings. These things together gave us the language to talk about and develop the imagery in our own designs, says Hellberg: the historical elements meant something and were not just a string of anecdotes.
The historical elements that Space Popular have adopted are fundamental to their whole approach. Lesmes concludes our conversation by saying: "We study things that happen in the past. We draw something and redraw it, and it becomes something new." Which is, of course, a message that Gottfried Semper would have approved of.
"The Glass Chain" (Die Gläserne Kette in its native German) was an exchange of written letters initiated by Bruno Taut in November 1919. The correspondence lasted only a year, and included the likes of Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, and Paul Gösch.
This essay by Space Popular references an installation currently on display at Sto Werkstatt, in London. You can experience it in virtual reality, here. The Glass House has no purpose other than to be beautiful. It is intended purely as a structure for exhibition and should be a beautiful source of ideas for "lasting" architecture but is not intended as such.