Space Popular's immersive setup explores the future of portals at Soane’s, London

The multidisciplinary studio presents Portal Galleries, an exhibition that lets you experience a virtual extension of the revered museum, using VR headsets.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Aug 05, 2022

Our seeming reality today is defined by a desire to see the unseen, think of the unknown, and to inspire a generation thriving on two lives – one that embodies the physicality of being, and the other that takes you places with your mind. Our 'scrolls are becoming strolls' and screens are morphing into magic thresholds that sail us across time, space, and realms. Fascinated by this puzzling landscape of our lives, the practice of architects and educators Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg of Space Popular explores the future of spatial experience through virtual reality, films, exhibitions, and speculative writings. Their current work is an extension of their vast research on portals – a 'door' or an opening that grants access into another environment, be it physical or digital. Staged inside Sir John Soane’s Museum London – a setting the duo refers to as a house full of portals, marked by a clever use of light, mirrors and rooms – the showcase explores portals to render a virtual extension of the historic British townhouse.

Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, founders of multi-disciplinary studio Space Popular | Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, founders of multi-disciplinary studio Space Popular Image: Gareth Gardner

According to Space Popular, Soane comes with the greatest collection of pre-electronic media transportation devices that made it a relevant context to stage their research. Responding to the spatiality of the museum, Lesmes and Hellberg found cues in the way its walls unfold, mirrors reflect, and scales shift perspectives. Like a portal within a portal, visitors walk through carefully choreographed recesses and floating nooks to arrive inside stately rooms boasting historic sculptures and drawings. An immersive new world comes alive with the Portal Galleries – the duo’s efforts of a long-spanning research that straddles the stories of the museum's past and ours. The presentation is in the form of various multimedia offerings: a spatial film experienced via a VR headset, a handcrafted portal table illustrating a three-dimensional timeline of fictional portals (in addition to being the stage of the second film), and a series of drawings by both the museum and the multidisciplinary studio.

  • Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
    A still from the VR film Image: Courtesy of Space Popular
  • Portal within a portal, a still from the VR film presented at the museum | Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
    Portal within a portal, a still from the VR film presented at the museumImage: Courtesy of Space Popular

Portals has been a recurring theme of study for Lesmes and Hellberg who have previously conceived various projects journeying into the digital realm. This includes Gate of Bright Lights – an immersive video installation replacing the physical gate of Deoksugung Palace in Seoul with a digital one; an architectural conference comprising galleries and exhibition spaces in VR for Spanish festival, Arquia Proxima; and Freestyle: Architecture Adventures in Mass Media as a virtual setup tracing the history of architectural styles. Their recent project, The Global Home, presented during Salone del Mobile. Milano 2022, packaged a sensorial documentation on the future of virtual togetherness within our homes.

Drawings illustrating historic portals by Space Popular, showcased within the exhibition | Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
Drawings illustrating historic portals by Space Popular, showcased within the exhibition Image: Matthew Blunderfield

Intervening within the interior folds of Sir John Soane's Museum, Space Popular’s presentation peers into the building’s doors and frames to discover the myriad worlds within. One film, staged on the ground floor, lets you enter a series of portals seguing into 'environments derived from Soane’s spaces'. "The film," as per Fredrik Hellberg, "focuses on the experience of passing through a portal – what is it like to put your body through these magical thresholds."

Another is a physical artefact placed in the middle of one of the museum’s expansive galleries. The work presents a multi-levelled table wrapped in peppy visualisations that offer a cross-media historical study of fictional portals, including the wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the Cheshire Cat Shortcut from Alice in Wonderland. The information on the research comprising data on over 900 to 1000 portals is also disseminated via a VR film, accompanying the setup.

The exhibition features an archival collection of drawings by the museum and the studio, in addition to the VR films and a physical interactive setup | Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
The exhibition features an archival collection of drawings by the museum and the studio, in addition to the VR films and a physical interactive setup Image: Matthew Blunderfield

"We really believe that portals will be one of the main infrastructure projects the later half of the century that we are in," adds Hellberg, who is seen with Lesmes articulating the premise of the showcase in video released by the Soane museum. “The future of our virtual experiences will be about touch. Spatial computing will take away screens, keyboards and touchpads but we will continue to use our hands to navigate and interact with virtual space. This will lead us to a whole new world of haptics where a furniture, objects, and tools become interfaces or, in other words, portals to virtual worlds,” the two share in an official press release on Portal Galleries.

  • A multi-levelled table pulls visitors to discover a cross-media study of 900-1000 fictional portals | Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
    A multi-levelled table pulls visitors to discover a cross-media study of 900-1000 fictional portals Image: Matthew Blunderfield
  • The setup is supported by a VR film that disemminates data on the portal research | Portal Galleries | Space Popular | STIRworld
    The setup is supported by a VR film that disemminates data on the portal research Image: Matthew Blunderfield

With a rich archive of portal studies and a dreamy setup to peer into new worlds, the duo’s investigation of the next is surely a treat to the senses. Will digital portals completely take over spatial experiences in the future? What measure of physicality will remain sacrosanct? Where do we head from here? Only time can tell.

"We really believe that portals will be one of the main infrastructure projects the later half of the century that we are in," says Fredrik Hellberg Image: Matthew Blunderfield

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