A little green man is waiting to show you how fashion and the media are inextricably linked – in architectural design terms too
I turn to my right and suddenly a giant printing press pops up before my very eyes. Soon, books are forming a tall stack upwards. I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, only minutes earlier a little green figure had materialised, jumped up and down and started waving at me.
I’m hallucinating courtesy of VR – a key component of Freestyle: Architectural adventures in mass media, a rather fantastic and highly engaging exploration of how different media have driven 500 years of architectural styles at the RIBA from printing press to internet.
Created by the design studio Space Popular, this ambitious, multi-layered exhibition has taken two years to realise. Entering the Architecture Gallery, it’s clear that this is no conventional show. Instead it harnesses both old school display – actual drawings and objects from the RIBA collections – and VR fun and games in its mission to trace the interplay between media and architecture.
The drawings are to the perimeter while the main space is dominated by the huge, dark model that forms the stage set for the four VR experiences. This is a curious mash-up of actual and slightly abstracted buildings, starting with the late 16th century Hardwick Hall and moving through history up to the ‘post-blob’ era. This model is standing on the third main exhibition element – a special carpet, brightly patterned with interconnected images of different media linked to a timeline border. The overall result is decidedly heady and almost as colourful as the vibrant clothes favoured by Space Popular’s principles Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg. Additional wall graphics set out the names and timespans of different periods of style.
Freestyle is part of a series of installations inspired by Italian Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio’s The Seven Books of Architecture, regarded as the first mass publication of architectural images. The show’s starting point is the fourth volume, On the Five Styles of Buildings, and an early edition is included in the exhibition.
Space Popular aimed to navigate the ‘choppy waters of style’ lightly. While the result is certainly playful, it is also highly illuminating. With our helpful little VR guide conjuring up images to illustrate the narrative, it is a lively ride. We start with the important role of printing technology, and how the influence of early books on architectural style such as Serlio’s eventually influenced the design of grand buildings in England such as Hardwick Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral and Blenheim Palace.
We learn how books spread the popularity of exotic styles back in the UK – step forward the Pagoda (William Chambers) at Kew Gardens and the Royal Pavilion (John Nash) at Brighton. Meanwhile Owen Jones was drawing on the rich inspiration of the Alhambra as he compiled his important and highly influential design source book on ornament. We move onto the Great Exhibition/Crystal Palace - one of the first buildings to be documented with the new medium of photography. This period coincided with what the exhibition tells us was something of an overload of styles – resulting in a turn back to the ‘truth’ of the gothic revival. Next up is the impact of the moving image – first zoetrope, then cinema and television, and the role of the magazine in popularising and disseminating style. We take in art deco, modern and post-modern and by then, the pace is really increasing with video games, the internet ushering in a wealth of stimuli – Space Popular talks of the internet as both a ‘style-making paradise’ and leading us into a ‘dizzying freefall’ with its ‘overdose of pattern recognition’.
Since the carpet of the exhibition has been made to scale (each year is 2cm), its pattern is representative of the pace of change. Tellingly, in the early sections, the spaces between the media innovations – for example different types of printing press – start out large and the pattern is formal and ordered. But this becomes increasingly dense as we get into the 20th and then 21st centuries – reflecting the great increase in the speed of communication. By the time we’ve reached the present day, the carpet has evolved into a mass of splintered colours – no single style can be seen as defining a particular time as it may have once done throughout history. Things now move far too fast for that.
VR brings another significant change, allowing the viewer to step into the media and become part of the spatial environment itself. ‘For the first time, instead of being represented by media, today architectural experiences can exist wholly inside it. It’s time to review our description of architecture as something only physical,’ says Space Popular in its exhibition text.
Looking ahead, the over-riding message is one of freedom. Space Popular hopes that the ‘inclusivity, openness and emancipatory character of new mediums can only be positive for architecture,’ and talks about embracing the possibilities of a truly freestyle that is accessible to the many, not the few.
There’s a lot going on here. And while this engaging show is particularly well suited to younger people and general audiences, I’d recommend it to anyone. Those new to the subject will gain a lot, while those already in the know will enjoy debating the narrative, including the choice of examples and the assessment of how innovations in media have affected architectural style.
This is the RIBA’s first VR exhibition, but surely not its last.