Founded in 2013, the architectural design and research practice Space Popular has quickly grown a reputation for its high-concept, visually striking work, created by two eccentric-looking young architects, Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg.
While some of its projects – from a recent kaleidoscopic glass installation in London to renderings of buildings with names like The House of Fairytales – can be somewhat difficult to decipher, there is a clear design philosophy running throughout the practice, one that is perhaps best captured in the name itself: Space Popular.
“Spaces, rooms, architecture, interiors, that at its core have the experience of people, of humans, as the most important point,” says Hellberg.
A generation of “spatial illiterates”
The problem, at least for Hellberg and Lesmes, who first met at the Architectural Association in London, is that experience isn’t something contemporary architecture is particularly good at evoking.
The two young architects believe modernism has compromised the industry’s ability to articulate the complex nature of buildings beyond narrow concepts like performance and function, turning people into what Lesmes calls “spatial illiterates”.
“It has a lot to do with the way in which architecture is evaluated,” Hellberg adds. “Usually we talk about architecture by how well it suits a certain purpose, how practical it is, how much it costs. But we seldom speak purely about design and the experience of architecture. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it.”
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For Space Popular the problem has reached a critical point as new technologies change the way architects work. The introduction of VR technology in particular marks a paradigm shift, says Lesmes, where architecture is becoming increasingly experience-focused but lacks the vocabulary in which to communicate itself.
“Virtual reality is going to bring incredible opportunities for architects that we may miss if we don’t know how to speak about design in those terms,” he says. “In VR there is no problem to solve. We cannot start talking about architecture by how efficient it is in square meters or how it is oriented to the sun in a particular way. We have to talk about it purely experientially and for that we need to have the language.”
Glass future: drawing on German expressionism and the glass chain movement
Space Popular’s recent Glass Chain installation at Sto Werkstatt in London was designed to tease out some of these issues. Using a material that is usually featureless, Lesmes and Hellberg created a kaleidoscopic structure with vibrant, colourful patterns printed onto the glass. A material most people associate with looking through suddenly became an object in and of itself.
The project and exhibition drew heavily on early modernism and the glass chain movement, which refers to a series of letters exchanged between a group of German expressionist architects at the beginning of the 20th century. Initiated by Bruno Taut – who designed a glass pavilion for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne – the architects shared a utopian vision for a world of coloured glass.
“What is so exciting about the German expressionists and their theories about glass is that they were all about transparency but also about colour and fluidity,” says Hellberg. “Obviously glass then developed and became the keystone to modernism but in a completely different way. It kept the transparency – that is its main role – but never colour and never doing any forms that are not straight and flat.”
Despite the limited role of glass in modernist architecture the material has become central to other parts of our lives – a paradox Lesmes and Hellberg were also hoping to bring out in their Glass Chain installation
“The way we are accessing virtual worlds today is through glass and we are developing a relationship to it that is very new,” says Lesmes. “We are constantly touching it, looking at it but not through it. It became quite exciting to reflect upon this fact that maybe the glass facade could have the potential of becoming a portal into the virtual world, a screen even if those images are not moving.”
The site for architecture is the human mind
Space Popular was formed in Bangkok, Thailand, where both Lesmes and Hellberg were teaching at a newly-founded international architecture programme called INDA, based out of Chulalongkorn University. Two years ago the practice was moved to London but the architects remain involved in projects around the world.
“Regardless of where we are based we have always been doing projects internationally,” says Lesmes. “We are now in London but most of our projects are outside of the city, and not even in the UK. We are quite mobile as a project and work with different local collaborators abroad.”
Among its most recent projects is a proposal for a multidimensional memorial in Warsaw that Lesmes and Hellberg have described as an “exercise in cognitive driven design”. The plan involved reconstructing five different versions of Warsaw’s famous Kazimierz Palace using virtual reality augmentation to be experienced on site via different devices.
Meanwhile in Valencia, Spain, the two architects are currently designing a family house using traditional Catalan vault with the colour changed “to transform the usual appearance”, and in Venice they are about to launch a new, “semi-DIY” building system.
“The structure and the core of the house is built in a factory and the rest of the house – floors, walls, ceilings – is built by the home owners themselves,” Hellberg explains. “All of the surfaces come from the core which means that a home owner can expand their house by themselves over years without having to get in consultants.”
While these projects might sound disparate, both architects are keen to drive home a common thread: that the environments people inhabit and the spaces they experience can have a huge effect on their lives.
“The site for architecture is the human mind,” Lesmes says. “That is where we build.”