A Virtual Style


6 July 2020

When Freestyle, an exhibition by architects Space Popular, opened at RIBA’s Portland Place space in February 2020, it set out to examine the ways in which the evolution of architectural styles in Britain have been shaped by the development of mass media.

Working with RIBA curator Shumi Bose, Space Popular’s founders Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg created an exhibition that analysed how different modes of consumption, from the book through to virtual reality, have impacted upon the architectural styles they depict. Taking Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio’s book On the Five Styles of Buildings (1537) as a starting point, the show is a historical tour through the impact of the popular dissemination of architecture.

Space Popular’s exhibition blurred physical and virtual domains. A large-scale architectural model served as a physical timeline, colliding disparate elements of British architecture from the past 500 years. The model was complemented by the carpet upon which it sat, whose weave depicted the different modes of media that have helped disseminate those styles: printing presses, cameras, iPhones and games consoles. Meanwhile, a four-part virtual reality animation provided further exploration of the history of architectural styles.

When lockdown temporarily shuttered the physical exhibition, Space Popular responded by shifting Freestyle entirely into the digital realm. Using Mozilla Hubs, Lesmes and Hellberg developed an online space that replicates the physical portion of the exhibition, as well as more fully integrating the virtual reality films into the digital architecture.

For an exhibition examining the means by which media shapes appreciation of architecture, Freestyle’s move into the digital in the face of Covid-19 could hardly be more apposite. In response to the digital exhibition’s launch, Disegno spoke to Lesmes and Hellberg. An edited version of the conversation follows below.

Fredrik Hellberg and Lara Lesmes photographed in Freestyle (Image: Francis Ware).

Disegno Let’s start with the exhibition’s theme, which is an examination of the connections between architectural style and the media in which it is represented. What do you see as the nature of that relationship?

Lara Lesmes We’re looking at style from the point of view of pattern recognition: something that you recognise after having seen a lot of samples, in much the same way that someone might look at a Pinterest board and understand what you mean by a particular style, even if you don’t have a name for it. The more samples you have, the more accurate the notion of style that is translated becomes. Media plays a key role in providing architecture samples. Previously you had to visit buildings, and therefore styles developed quite slowly, but as media has advanced you have faster and wider and easier access to those samples.

Fredrik Hellberg We’re looking at a British context, because style and media are so contextual. The first mass-media object is the book, and the first mass-media artefact for architecture is Sebastiano Serlio’s book on style [On the Five Styles of Buildings (1537)]. That was even more important, we think, than [Leon Battista] Alberti’s book [De re aedificatoria (1485)] because it was written in Italian, not Latin. It was also the first printed book about architecture which included illustrations.

Lara Alberti’s books were written in Latin which means that they were meant for the elite. Serlio precisely wanted to reach the masses.

The Freestyle architectural model (Image: Francis Ware).

Disegno How did the exhibition come about?**

Fredrik RIBA reached out for us to respond to its Serlio brief, as Sam Jacob’s exhibition [Disappear Here (2018)] responded to Serlio’s book on perspective. The brief was that the exhibition should respond to questions of style today and we put forward an argument on style’s relationship to media, which is something we’ve been developing for a couple of years. We were lucky because we have had two years to work on the exhibition together with the RIBA and curator Shumi Bose. While we had originally been interested specifically in the influence of television on architecture, we realised that with this much time we could do the whole thing – from the book to the VR headset.

Disegno What draws you to style as a topic? Frequently architects discuss style as a confining concept that is limiting and which reduces complexity.

Fredrik When you hear architects mutter about style, it’s often because those architects are lucky enough to build a lot. It’s common that you get profiled within the commercial world of architecture to do a certain kind of building, which you then end up doing over and over. So I completely sympathise with people who are frustrated with that in their own practice, but I’m not sympathetic when people say that style is a straitjacket – I think that’s narrow minded. In our case, we’re interested in semiotics and the symbolic power that objects and buildings have to communicate behaviours. Our name is Space Popular – we’re interested in what’s popular and what common language people speak in a certain context. A lot of that comes down to the style of buildings, objects and clothes, and the style in which you speak.

The model reproduced in the digital space.

Disegno Which you would also carry over into the virtual?

Fredrik Our big prediction is that in the next 30 to 40 years technology will evolve to a point where both augmented reality and AI technology will make it possible for style to be expressed at the speed of the spoken word. Architecture – objects, surfaces, enclosures and atmospheres – will be able to be generated at the speed with which we can think and express them. We’re already halfway there with the capacity to produce virtual worlds like the one we’ve created for RIBA. In the past, style was a language spoken between generations: a nation built something to communicate its values. But the speed of virtual worlds mean that you can build to communicate to a specific individual, and that’s not necessarily a waste of resources or an absurd thing to imagine. If you think about virtual worlds, there’s nothing there without style. Virtual worlds are made of style.

Disegno Do you think it makes sense to speak of style as something that could be created for a single project to communicate to a single individual, as opposed to something that is built through the actions of many and which communicates to many?

Lara Usually you talk about style in hindsight. It seems impossible to think that your work is completely yours. It’s much more exciting to be aware of and embrace the fact that you’re part of some kind of movement and that you’re a part of your time. Different things are happening in different places, and it’s wonderful to think that you’re constantly informed by the work of others. We’re all nodding at one another through our work.

Fredrik We’re very interested in using the word “style”. Most things we can study that humans do, even if they seem very new, are part of a much bigger project or ambition. Understanding what style can mean in the future relies on understanding what it has meant in the past, and not limiting ourselves to thinking styles happen in a single moment. Fashioning a stone tool 40,000 years ago, for example – the word “style” would apply to what that means and what that cultured object is doing.

The carpet documenting media forms that have shaped architecture (Image: Francis Ware).

Disegno So the appeal is that it admits of multiple aspects – it’s not either/or but and and/both?

Fredrik It’s a word that is difficult to explain and is so malleable. It quite precisely explains certain things and you can apply it in so many ways.

Lara At the core it’s always describing some form of pattern recognition. It’s an understanding of aesthetic patterns.

Fredrik And repeated behaviour.

Lara It relates to one of the things we’re best at, which is recognising patterns.

The digital Freestyle space.

Disegno Was there always a plan to build the digital version of the show, or was that specifically a response to Covid-19?

Lara It was to address Covid-19. Before the pandemic we always developed work that was intentionally mixed-reality because we don’t think virtual worlds exist in isolation. But the priority with the pandemic became to make this accessible to people – embrace the digital world in isolation and see what we can develop from that.

Fredrik For many years we have had the pleasure and privilege of speculating what the virtual will do to the world over the next 50 years. But when it has become essential that some of those projects be rolled out now, what do you do?

Lara We’ve been creating suggestions of what might be, and then suddenly that future is now. It’s been quite amazing, although I still think it is important not to separate the physical and the virtual. This is a passing moment.