Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thoughts on the Palacio de Cristal and the translation of architectural space to digital

Some background for this post: I started thinking about and writing about space for an academic paper submission. This is a culmination of a few months of thoughts and notes scattered through various notebooks, word docs and scraps of paper. I found it really interesting that everything I've been thinking about over this length of time is related and builds upon itself.

We enter digital space through windows - the frames of our monitors, browsers and webpages. In the digital cocoon, we do feel safe to explore.

Google Earth has made it possible to traverse the entire world with one swipe. We can reach through space, soar over architecture and place ourselves in the middle of the streetscape with a 360 degree viewpoint, almost like real life. The recently launched Google Art Project is a site that allows the user to explore museums room by room, and enjoy the collection in high resolution on the computer screen. The website displays the photo of the artwork with a handy sidebar containing its significance and location on the museum floorplan.

For the past five months I've lived in Madrid, and only recently did I discover the Palacio Cristal, a site for temporary exhibitions of the Museo Reina Sofia, during a run through the Retiro Park. At the time I didn't have a chance to go inside, so once I got home I looked up the collection on Google Art Project, but the sensorial magic of viewing the artwork in context of the museum space was lost.

Image courtesy of Viajarsinprisa

As much as these digital capabilities are beneficial to those who cannot travel, the experience of architectural space combined with artwork in-person is full nourishment for the senses. The experience from the computer screen is no more or less valuable than being in-person, but it is a re-appropriation of space and therefore an entirely different sentient experience.

Few spaces have impacted me in the same way as the Palacio Cristal. In front of the building there is a small man-made lake, then the gaze rises up stairs immersed directly in the water all the way to the entrance with its combination of cast-iron and massive panes of glass yearning for the sky. It was the view of the entrance that first enchanted me, from my safe place leaning against the railing next to the pond. I looked up to enjoy layer upon layer of panes of glass broken up and organized with much heavier, structural, tactile materials. The effect of heavy and light, dark and brilliant, opaque and transparent - the multiple dualities have a powerful effect on the senses.

Notably, the relationship between the glass windows and water is amplified by the intimacy of the space. Although it is located on a large hilltop in the Retiro, as you walk up the hill there is a profound feeling of comfort, intimacy, peace and solitude even among the throngs of visitors. It is on the petite, antique scale like so many other places in Madrid, which is what makes the striking architecture even more profound.

The Palacio Cristal was built in 1887 by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, intended to display the flora and fauna of the Phillipines for an upcoming exhibition in Madrid. An important aspect of this enchanted space is that on the other side of the building from the lake, there is a loyal circle of chestnut trees - mirroring the vertical gesture of the structure's columns and nature's counterpart to the massive weight of the cast-iron.

The space is ethereal and alluring - it absorbs the beauty that surrounds it and reflects back an image amplified. The impact of the space comes from the concatenation of all the different elements and our immersion in the space that is created between them.

If sensory immersion brings full understanding, should our intention be to replicate this experience in digital space with platforms such as Google Earth and Google Art Project, or are there other ways to exploit the characteristics of the web to provide a layered and unique journey? To use an historical example, Paul Klee's Rotating House (1921) is a two-dimensional painting created with oil and pencil on a muslin cloth, but miraculously takes us on an adventure of space, perception and perspective. Klee captures the feeling of the intimacy of space while also referencing all of the various perspectives and viewpoints offered to us by looking outside from our home using the abstract form of windows. He took advantage of primitive tools and manipulated them to a level of dynamic three-dimensionality without resorting to the replication of three-dimensional space. He simply wanted to explain the way space works.
Having lived in New York City for nine years prior to my move to Madrid, I relate to this need to define my surroundings from a protected space that I can peer through. In cities, windows comprise a large portion of our surroundings, and provide a viewpoint into the soul of the city - human and architectural. They can tell their own story, or inspire a city's mythology. The mythology can be completely in our imagination or very real and overwhelming. We are immersed in the city, and sometimes lost. As if we are surrounded by the tallest trees in a forest of thick evergreens, and we don't know the way out.

The Palacio Cristal offers the opposite effect of being immersed in the middle of the city with windows staring down at you. The feeling of being looked at is reversed and now you are the one looking in, now you have the power, not a singular pedestrian oppressed by the blank stare of hundreds of windows. Now, the building gererously opens itself to you with a valiant effort of transparency and openness. Somehow, we feel protected here, and we know it's ok to look.

How can a designer of digital spaces represent the feeling of the layers of place in a digital context? There are profound differences between physical and digital space. The digital experience disconnects us from our senses but adds the inherent safety and control of an experience entirely on our computer screen. Given the opportunity of our current technologies, how can the interactivity of traveling through a digital place be established?

One solution may lie in the exhausted but extremely valuable concept of community. In multiple locations around the United States and abroad, BOOM, a hip new retirement development is being planned for the aging LGTB community. The architects commissioned Bruce Mau Design to develop the website, identity and social media, years before the physical site will even be open to residents. This is an innovative way to begin the conversation and encourage interest and exploration of the development at a very early stage. And certainly one way to allow users to reach into the space to pull out information that they need, or discover things they didn't even know they needed.

The digital space can provide a platform with the opportunities both to express and to learn. It can offer a duality of giving and taking, sometimes by the same people and sometimes different, depending on their needs. A community platform can give a unique experience of place from many different perspectives, and a tapestry of individual contributions allows a place to speak for itself, as if through the cracks in the sidewalk. Many times when I walk around in my new city I feel like an outsider, but truthfully it is not foreign or even separate from me - my surroundings are the same as everyone else around me. There is so much safety, comfort and insight to be gained from that shared human experience; it can help us be a little bit less lost when exploring new places, and can help us find our way among the thousands of windows.

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