The exhibition Search History at the MAXXI Museum in Rome by Space Popular explores the thresholds and interstitial spaces of the Immersive Internet. Inspired by the writings of Aldo Rossi, and in particular the seminal work The Architecture of the City, the architecture duo defines the virtual city as both a subjective and collective experience. In this conversation with Space Popular founders Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, we discuss their research into the immersive internet and the challenges which lie ahead in ensuring the shaping of a civic virtual city which is not governed by commercial-profit-driven technologies and companies.
KOOZ Your work in relation to virtual world making spans almost a decade now. Search History is only the last iteration in a series of projects that have had “the virtual” at the core. I’m referring to Punto de Inflexión, Value in the Virtual and The Cloud of Resilience, to name a few. Has your stance changed during the last ten years? How has your understanding of the subject evolved?
SPACE POPULAR Through exhibitions and artworks, we develop projects which often speculate on the future of immersive media and its effects on everything, from domestic environments to public spaces. Thus, in the last decade, our approach has indeed evolved, both because of our continuous research into the topic but also because of how the world around us has significantly changed. It is our opinion that speculative futures have reached us sooner than expected and that the significant evolution in artificial intelligence holds the keys to radical changes in virtual environments. Due to this rapid evolution, we believe that we will soon reach the pinnacle of what virtual environments will be able to deliver: the idea of architecture at the speed of the spoken word.
We believe that we will soon reach the pinnacle of what virtual environments will be able to deliver: the idea of a material environment which materializes at the speed at which it is being expressed in words.
KOOZ Search History aims to “present the experience of moving across virtual environments in the Immersive Internet”. Could you walk us through the installation’s spatial components and its conceptual and material provocations?
SP The installation Search History is structured into two “environments”: Environments A (the origin) and Environment B (the destination). In immersive media environments, the magical portal - as explored in science fiction, movies and comics - can be seen as the three-dimensional iteration of the hyperlink.
In the specific case of Search History, one enters through a portal in Environment A and through virtual textiles on a cityscape whose facades reference Aldo Rossi’s designs. As one crosses from the threshold, one permeates a buffer zone whose depth withholds all the cookies - analogous to the ones we need to accept nowadays when browsing the internet - and the options for new Environment B. Within Environment B, the virtual space unfolds as a 360-environment defined by a cityscape based on Rossi’s theories and sketches about the city.
Taking Rossi’s sketches and his play with scales and windows as a point of departure - which at once draw buildings and objects together and establish distinctive synergies and relationships - , the project similarly introduces portals to instantly reveal versions of the same space, thus unfolding the possibility for the accumulation of history through virtual environments. With Search History, we were interested in representing how, through our own search history and over time, we build the internet as a place of our own. Moreover, for the virtual city, we were also keen on embracing Rossi’s theories on the city, as simultaneously subjective experience and objective fact.
With Search History, we were interested in challenging the idea of how, through our own search history and over time, we can build the internet as a place of our own.
KOOZ Proposition 3 of your 10 Propositions for Virtual Architecture (2018) says: “Virtual worlds will intensify our interest and appreciation of physical environments”. Search History appears to comprise only physical objects, surfaces, and materials. Could we say this installation works as a sort of “link” between the virtual and the physical aspects of your architectural interests?
SP Definitely. In our view, the hardware we are now using to access virtual environments is not representative of the future that we are exploring. We believe that the former is not practical nor interesting and, hopefully, it won’t last very long. Therefore we focus less on the hardware and more on the unique experience created when one is surrounded by media. In our exhibition at MAXXI, we achieved this through material means. We were able to develop this purely physical installation thanks to the support of MAXXI’s curator Domitilla Dardi. We are very grateful to her. A physical artwork that overlaps with the virtual, Search History allows visitors to have a shared experience.
KOOZ Search History intends to establish a dialogue with Aldo Rossi’s work, specifically the concept of the “analogous city”, a term which he developed only after the publication of his influential The Architecture of the City. Could you tell us more about your understanding of Rossi’s concept and how it can inform the way architects and designers should get involved in virtual world making?
SP The exhibition responds to the theories and notions brought forward by Rossi in his seminal work The Architecture of the City. It especially draws on the “fatto urbano” (urban fact) theory: the city is a sequence of spatial experiences that, while being unique to each one of us, remains permanent, universal and a necessary fact. For us both, being able to understand the city from a subjective and collective perspective simultaneously is key to the virtual city, specifically when considering the portal as a civic teletransportation device. It is a fact that these portals can exist as the same space, but one’s own journey through them could be different every single time depending on our choices. We believe it is important that, within virtual urbanism, connections are not bound to a rigid and definite urban pattern characterised by streets, but rather exist as a psychogeographic space.
We believe it is important that, within virtual urbanism, connections are not bound to a rigid and definite urban pattern characterized by streets, but rather exist as unique civic spaces.
KOOZ The archive as a depository - a quarry of sorts - is at the very core of the Studio Visit series. What is the role of the archive in your work (both built and unbuilt) and how do you think about it in relation to the virtual?
SP Archives are at the core of our practice. We frequently find ourselves working with the internet as inspiration, tool, and topic, and thinking about the effects that this incredible reach to information has on us as creative people. Beyond the digital, we have consulted some of the greatest physical archives out there and each time we appreciate the incredible resource they are. Particularly, Freestyle at the RIBA and Portal Galleries at the Sir John Soane Museum were two research projects in which we consulted and constructed archives to reveal important aspects in the development of virtual environments.
In Freestyle, we built from different archives combined: The History of Mass Media Hardware development over the last 500 hundred years and the Archive of the Evolution of Style in Architecture. We wanted to reveal patterns of influence among the two throughout history. Working with historical records allows us to “look into the future”, as per Marshall McLuhan and his rearview mirror argument, in which he suggests that it is impossible to walk forward into the future without looking backwards.
Although we deploy archival material, our projects are always concerned with “seeing into the future”, as per Marshall McLuhan and his rearview mirror argument, in which he suggests that it is impossible to walk forward into the future without looking backwards.
In The Portal Galleries we built an archive of over 900 portals that enabled us to understand how the collective imagination has been thinking about virtual mobility.. Portals - in science fiction and other mediums - have been imagined for hundreds of years. If we study them, we can get a glimpse of what expectations we might have for these spaces in the future.
KOOZ Search History proposes “a civic approach to virtual urbanism”, a sensible counterpart to current “so-called metaverse platforms that aim to recreate existing real-estate market models”. What are the political implications of virtual worldmaking for the architectural profession? Do you think that our agency as architects and designers can be more influential in the “virtual” than what it has been in the “physical”?
SP First and foremost, we believe that architects have greatly informed, and continue to inform, the way our cities are shaped. This goes beyond the practice of designing and building buildings but also policy making within city councils and urban planning. However, architects have very little agency on the real estate market which has a tremendous impact in the built environment and the climate.
This is something which is reflected by our research into the virtual city and by our interest in exploring spaces such as VR Chat in contrast to commercially driven platforms such as Decentraland and Cryptovoxels. Although we understand that projects such as VR Chat are not devoid of problems, we do appreciate its thriving community and the possibilities that this platform offers through the replication of worlds and creation of private instances, and specially the fact that they are prioritising their community. Contrarily, the virtual real estate model proposed by Decentraland and Cryptovoxels - which replicates the logic of our dysfunctional physical real estate reality by means of artificial scarcity - is full of problems. Rather than exploring the true potential of the virtual, these grid-like virtual urban sprawls embrace the same capital-driven logic of their physical counterparts, thus exacerbating virtual real estate speculation.
These environments should be shaped by architects, planners, and other professionals with experience in socio-political strategies, in the planning and organization of the city, as well as in infrastructures at large.
As per current trend, commercial-profit-driven technologies and companies shape immersive environments. We should not allow this to be the case. These environments should be shaped by architects, planners, and communities with experience in socio-political strategies, in the planning and organising of the city, as well as in infrastructures at large. We are interested in understanding how these environments could then be governed beyond national borders through blockchain based contracts. In this sense, beyond the architecture discipline, we are working towards establishing a multidisciplinary group of experts able to draft these new parameters and shape the civic infrastructures for the virtual city.
Space Popular is directed by Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, both alumni of the Architectural Association in London (2011). They founded the practice in Bangkok (2013) and have been based in London and Spain since 2016. Space Popular creates spaces, objects, and events in both physical and virtual space, concentrating on how the two realms can blend together. The studio has completed buildings, exhibitions, public artworks, furniture collections, and interiors across Asia and Europe, as well as virtual architecture for the immersive internet.
Lesmes and Hellberg both have extensive academic experience having taught architectural design studio since 2011, first at INDA, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok from 20211 to 2016, at the Architectural Association in London from 2016 to 2021, and currently at Daniels, Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto sinde 2020, and UCLA Architecture and Urban Design since 2022. Their current MArch design and research studios both at Daniels and UCLA investigates visions for civic architecture in the immersive internet.