‘Portals will be as important as the car’: the architects exploring gateways to new dimensions

From Platform 9¾ in Harry Potter to Bill and Ted’s phone booth, a new exhibition about portals explores the ways we’ll soon be moving around the metaverse With its hidden doors, folding walls and clever optical tricks with mirrors and light-wells, Sir John Soane’s Museum feels like just the kind of place you might stumble across a portal to another dimension. Moving from one room to the next in this wildly reimagined London townhouse is never as straightforward as stepping through a simple doorway. The eponymous neoclassical architect and collector saw to it 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 up, down and through his multi-levelled maze of antique treasures. Step through one opening, expecting another stately drawing room, and you find yourself standing on a bridge, suspended in a three-storey “sepulchral chamber”, where a glazed dome brings light down to an Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement. Pull back the folding panels in the picture room, and you discover a statue of a nymph in a hidden recess, floating above a void that plunges into another sculpture-encrusted nook below the floor. Each carefully choreographed transition, each theatrical reveal, is designed to transport the visitor to a parallel universe, whether it be the ancient ruins of Giambattista Piranesi’s Paestum, the demonic halls of John Milton’s Pandemonium, or the drawings of imaginary cities made up of fragments of Soane’s own buildings. Two hundred years later, Soane’s richly layered labyrinth has been extended with a whole new virtual dimension. Following a period of intensive research during the pandemic, experimental architectural duo Space Popular have unveiled the Portal Galleries, a beguiling immersive exhibition that explores the history and future of portals – a topic for which there could be no better setting. Using a combination of virtual reality films and physical exhibits, alongside drawings from the collection, the show charts the role of magical thresholds in fiction, film, television and gaming, and speculates on the fundamental role they will play in the coming virtual world. “Portals are going to be everywhere,” says Fredrik Hellberg, co-founder of Space Popular with Lara Lesmes. “We are convinced they will be the main infrastructure of the rest of this century, just as ubiquitous as the car was to the last. To avoid future mistakes, we should start to get prepared now.” The concept of virtual transport infrastructure might be quite a challenge to get your head around. But Hellberg and Lesmes are adamant that it is the next pressing design challenge, as our “scrolls become strolls”, and the internet takes on an ever more spatial dimension. Continue reading...

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