Space Popular explores the evolution of architectural styles at RIBA, London

Freestyle: Architecture Adventures in Mass Media by the London-based studio stages a peppy virtual reality setup tracing the impact of technology on architecture of the past.

by Zohra Khan Published on : Mar 28, 2020

Peppy graphics, a stark architectural model and an immersive experience await visitors at the architecture gallery of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. Titled Freestyle: Architecture Adventures in Mass Media, this is RIBA’s first virtual reality exhibition. It has been designed by multidisciplinary studio Space Popular, led by partners Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, and curated by educator Shumi Bose.

Space Popular founders, Fredrik Hellberg and Lara Lesmes | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
Space Popular founders Fredrik Hellberg and Lara Lesmes Image Credit: Francis Ware

Lesmes and Hellberg combined their passion for technology, colour and bold forms by staging a fun exploration of the impact of popular culture and technologies on the evolution of architectural styles in the last 500 years. Using virtual reality, they bring together a palette of physical and animated objects that orchestrates the rise and fall of various styles of the past - from the Byzantine to Baroque, or Renaissance to Post Modernism – simultaneously depicting mass media’s influence on contemporary architecture and spaces.

Unpacking the idea of 'style' through the medium of the exhibition, the duo notes: “We cannot name a style as it is forming, but that does not mean we cannot perceive it. In fact, at times it feels like we perceive far too much. We live in saturated times and it’s hard to know which bits of culture will calcify into an enduring style, and which will be discarded.”

A visitor immersed in the VR experience that takes you through a journey of architectural styles | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
A visitor immersed in the VR experience that takes you through a journey of architectural styles Image Credit: Francis Ware

A colourful carpet featuring ornamental motifs is spread out on the floor, while above it, at the centre of the gallery, sits a large, detailed architectural model. The carpet is dotted by drawings of printing presses, radios, TVs, mobiles and computers - the various mediums of communication – and the model showcases various buildings from the UK, projecting a certain timeline. In addition to Space Popular’s custom designed objects, Freestyle also involves artefacts from RIBA’s collection. One of the highlights include original works by prolific British architects Owen Jones, Augustus Pugin and John Nash illustrated as a wall exhibit.

Details of the carpet | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
Details of the carpetImage Credit: Francis Ware

STIR speaks with Space Popular to delve into the premise of the show and understand how the aforesaid components come together to reveal an illuminating tour of architectural styles.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Zohra Khan (ZK): What is at the core of the exhibition's name, Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media?

Space Popular (SP): The title reflects the points made across the different pieces in the show, where we argue that mass media has made architectural style ever more accessible, and it also plays on the pop culture meaning of the term as a style of improvisation.

The architectural model references important UK buildings such as Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and the famous Crystal Palace | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
The architectural model references important UK buildings such as Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and the famous Crystal Palace Image Credit: Francis Ware

ZK: Can you list some of the buildings that are at the centre of this exploration, and have you followed any criteria in bunching these structures?

SP: The model is a combination of fictional buildings inspired by several real examples in each period in the UK, all of them from reference material from the extensive collections of the RIBA. Some of the buildings we looked at include the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, or the famous Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, as well as more modern examples, like the Temple of Storms Pumping Station in south east London. However, the buildings in the model are to be read as averages rather than representations of particular buildings. They are organised according to the timeline that organises the whole room, like a huge spatial time diagram.

Both animated and the physical components are part of the VR experience | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
Both animated and the physical components are part of the VR experience Image Credit: Courtesy of Space Popular

ZK: It is said that knowledgeable 'avatars’ link animated and physical content within the space. What is implied by the word ‘avatars’ here?

SP: The 'avatars' are computer generated characters that act as guides through the VR films, explaining the historical evolution of architectural style in relationship to media. Our aim with the show, and especially the films, is to make our arguments as accessible as possible. While immersed in the virtual film, the avatars help guide you through time in an approachable and friendly way. It becomes less abstract if you are being spoken to directly, and if you can see the 'person' speaking, even better! Even if that person is virtual.

  • A glimpse of various architectural styles rendered in the background of the model | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
    A glimpse of various architectural styles rendered in the background of the model Image Credit: Courtesy of Space Popular
  • From Byzantine to Baroque, and Renaissance to Post Modernism - various architectural styles from different time periods |  RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
    From Byzantine to Baroque, and Renaissance to Post Modernism - various architectural styles from different time periods Image Credit: Courtesy of Space Popular
  • A scene simulating world of early video games | RIBA Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
    A scene simulating world of early video games Image Credit: Courtesy of Space Popular

ZK: Can you describe the elaborate imagery which is part of the VR experience at the exhibition?

SP: The experience is what is called 'location-based', which means that the model and the room is remodelled in the virtual experience in the same location as in the physical room. This means that you can reach out and touch the model that you see throughout the experience. The virtual guide (avatar) then takes you through the specific timeframe by showing you what different buildings looked like and what types of media devices were used. In some moments you might be seeing a Victorian camera or the Gutenberg Press, while in others you might be immersed in the colourful environments of early video games. All while the little virtual guides explain the connection between building styles and popular media.

The wall exhibit created using works from RIBA collection |  Freestyle | Space Popular | STIRworld
The wall exhibit created using works from RIBA collection Image Credit: Francis Ware

Freestyle emphasises that style needs your attention because it does not exist until you see it. However, what is most fascinating is to see how one is rather overjoyed looking through thousands of styles and vast stretching timelines that paint colourful architectural details in the air and draw immersive scenes from the past, one after the other.

(Note: Due to the Coronavirus outbreak across the world, 'Freestyle: Architecture Adventures in Mass Media' is closed to visitors. Keep an eye on the RIBA website, architecture.com, for details about opening dates and opportunities to explore the exhibition from the comfort of your own home.)

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than three years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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