OWith its hidden doors, folding walls, and clever optical tricks with mirrors and skylights, the Sir John Soane Museum looks like the kind of place you might stumble upon a portal to another dimension. Moving
OWith its hidden doors, folding walls, and clever optical tricks with mirrors and skylights, the Sir John Soane Museum looks like the kind of place you might stumble upon a portal to another dimension. Moving from room to room in this wildly reimagined London townhouse is never as easy as walking through a single door. The eponymous neoclassical architect and collector ensured that the thresholds between the different parts of his house-museum were elaborate spaces in themselves, topped with lanterns and lined with mirrors and windows, offering views upwards, down and through its multi-level maze of ancient treasures.
Step through an opening, expect another majestic living room, and you find yourself standing on a bridge, suspended in a three-story”sepulchral chamberwhere a glazed dome illuminates an Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement. Pull up the folding panels in the picture room and you discover a nymph statue in a hidden recess, floating above a void that plunges into another sculpture-encrusted nook below the floor. Each carefully choreographed transition, each theatrical revelation is designed to transport the visitor to a parallel universe, whether it is the ancient ruins of Paestum by Giambattista Piranesi, the demonic halls of Pandemonium by John Milton or the drawings of imaginary cities made up of fragments of Soane’s own buildings.
Two hundred years later, Soane’s richly layered maze has been extended with a whole new virtual dimension. After a period of intensive research during the pandemic, the duo of experimental architects Popular space unveiled the Portal Galleries, an alluring immersive exhibition that explores the history and future of portals – a subject for which there couldn’t be a better setting. Using a combination of virtual reality films and physical exhibits, as well as drawings from the collection, the show traces the role of magical thresholds in fiction, film, television and games, and speculates on the fundamental role that ‘they will play in the upcoming virtual world.
“Portals are going to be everywhere,” says Fredrik Hellberg, co-founder of Space Popular with Lara Lesmes. “We are convinced that they will be the main infrastructure for the rest of this century, just as ubiquitous as the car has been until the end. To avoid future mistakes, we should start preparing now.
The concept of virtual transport infrastructure can be quite difficult to understand. But Hellberg and Lesmes believe this is the next pressing design challenge, as our “scrolls become walkways,” and the Internet takes on an increasingly spatial dimension.
Think of the portal as the three-dimensional version of a link click. Just as hyperlinks take you from one web page to another, portals are becoming the primary means of traveling on the immersive Internet (also known as the metaverse), taking you from one virtual space to another. Who designs these portals, they argue, and with what purpose in mind, will define how we all come to navigate the virtual world.
“They’re very rudimentary at the moment,” says Lesmes, who has spent much of the pandemic teaching with Hellberg in virtual environments, using Social VR to meet their students, who were often back home in different countries. “Someone ‘drops a portal’ and your avatars go through some sort of ring or frame together, but often there’s a black screen, or you have to close the platform and find another app, and go through some link pages. It’s a horrible experience.
Functioning as time-traveling highway engineers in the launch of the Model T Ford, Space Popular wants to anticipate the coming chaos of metaverse navigation by providing a common civic infrastructure for virtual teleportation. “The portals will be the vessels for navigating the immersive internet,” they say in one of the films. “How they work will define the fairness of virtual environments and infrastructure.”
To imagine what form these vessels might take, the architects delved into the history of teleportation devices in fiction over the past 150 years, compiling a database of more than 900 examples, organized into 18 different categories. These are elegantly displayed on a tiered table, covered in printed fabric, in the middle of one of the Soane Galleries – in a similar fashion to their information-rich printed carpet at the Riba – and explained in a few VR films from ‘accompaniement .
Examples range from the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, to the wardrobe in the Narnia books, to Dr Who’s Tardis, The DeLorean from Back to the Future and Platform 9¾ in Harry Potter, via all manner of holes, mirrors, fissures, bridges, and “energy frames” found in science fiction and fantasy fiction. Their timeline tells a telling story, tracing the portal explosions after World War II, marked by Arthur C Clarke’s The Sentinel (which served as the basis for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey), the Time Machine in Peabody’s Improbable History, and the toll from the 1961 book The Phantom Tollbooth, written by architect Norton Juster.
The next period, leading up to the Cold War and the Space Race, saw the portals take the form of huge power-hungry machines and weapons built in the battle for world domination. They spotlight the 1960s TV series The tunnel of time, where thousands of people work below the surface of the desert on a secret megastructure, which would allow the United States military to travel through time, noting how its iconic spiral design has inspired countless portals in future stories. The post-Cold War period, meanwhile, saw portals play more satirical and comedic roles in science fiction and family movies, such as the telephone booth in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventureor the people-eating television in the 1980s body horror movie Videodrome.
They discovered that one of the most recurring portal types was the “portable hole”, first featured in the Looney Toons cartoon. The idea of the hole in 1955, in which a scientist demonstrates his device for rescuing a baby from a safe, cheating at golf, and escaping household chores. He later appears in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, as the sea of holesas well as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, reaching a holey peak in the 1985 Marvel cartoon character, Place – whose body is covered with portals.
For each of the 900 examples, they cataloged how each portal works, where it leads, and who can use it, revealing that newer examples often discriminate based on class, status, and ethnicity. In the Harry Potter franchise, for example, those born into a certain group can walk through the wall into a future of power and privilege, while mere mortals smash their faces against bricks.
While some of their charts and diagrams can be a little inscrutable, Space Popular’s overall message is clear. As tech giants such as Facebook (now Meta) and Microsoft try to dominate the metaverse, and the crypto community embraces it as a way to peddle other NFTs and whip virtual real estate, Lesmes and Hellberg call for a fairer virtual future. “In the next 15 years,” they write, “we must create a civic infrastructure for virtual teleportation that breaks with the discriminatory and opaque nature of locked doors, hidden vigilance, invasions of privacy, and discrimination. hidden”.
They don’t claim to have all the answers, but their mind-boggling portal archives provide insight into some of the directions the new virtual world could take. As they conclude in one of the films: “Now is the time to be careful about the doors we open and carefully examine the ones we close.” Personally, I’m going to take out the first flying phone booth in the metaverse and try not to fall through one of the slippery holes to Zucker-land.