Take a beautiful, historic interior setting, and add a new layer of ephemeral spectacle. The results are challenging, stimulating, and interesting.
The recent “Inside Peek” piece posted online in Canadian Interiors features AURA Basilica, a Canadian project by multimedia entertainment studio Moment Factory. AURA is a “45-minute immersive sound, light and video projection-mapping experience” that is staged in “Montreal’s landmark Notre-Dame Basilica” and aims to bring “this iconic heritage landmark to life in a new way.” Readers learn about the host building’s heritage details, religious context, interior architectural quality, and the custom multimedia elements inserted into this environment. Links to a video and to still images show the transformed historic interior. The article reveals that the spectacle – comprised of site-specific augmented reality and spatialized orchestral scoring combined in a series of immersive tableaux that take the viewer on “an ethereal imaginative journey” – creates an exciting new visitor experience. Nevertheless, despite valuable insight into project administration (in terms of project inception, detailed timeline, scale and scope of multi-disciplinary professional involvement), interesting technical challenges (video content needed to be adjusted to accommodate the interior’s existing vibrant colour palette) and evocative technical tidbits (the creative team “completed a 3D scan of the cathedral that acts as a complex digital canvas for the projections’ creative content”), the Canadian Interiors’ teaser post falls short. In addition to all of this information, the question remains: what new lessons does AURA teach us about interior spatial experience?
Spatial Experience can be hard to pin down. To begin, consider this proposal: spatial experience is the sensation of interaction with a defined architectural space, through all of our senses, over time, on both physical and cognitive levels. This kind of interaction suggests an exchange between actors; in this case, the spatial setting and the user. The interaction happens when the user recognizes and encounters the spatial setting through their time-based activities, which include rituals and behaviours making use of external stimuli (such as bodily experience, physical exertion and visual cues) and internal stimuli (such as memory, experience, knowledge, and emotion). As a result, spatial experience can be described as the circuit between defined space, user, and actions, in four dimensions.
Visitors to Montreal’s famous 19th century Gothic Revival church already enjoy a stimulating spatial experience. One can easily recognize the sequence of defined spaces: starting from the ornamented large stone façade that dominates an active urban square; across the decorated portal boundary marked by a heavy wooden door; through the constricted vestibule, and into the darkened, soaring interior with its processional draw toward a magnificent decorative focus at the apse end; and then further routed in-between smooth wooden pews, under gilded balcony overhangs, towards pauses in the pathway marked by devotional artwork in niches smelling of paraffin candles. Behaviours enacted within these spaces depend on experience and culture, and in response to personal motivation. Lucky visitors can observe a religious service and witness the building filled with sound and spirit. Otherwise, visitors move silently around the well-cared-for space, noting changes in their pace, their mood, and their heightened senses.
But spatial experience may not be so easy to predict. Indeed, it can change. Far from being static or universal, each part of this equation is also contextual and vibrates in constant motion amongst a variety of influences. For example:
- What interior space? – The built environment is not static in its materiality or in its concept. How might the interior be ‘read’ differently over time? How has changing technology altered its visibility? How has degraded or enhanced materiality changed the appreciation of physical patterns? How might mutable cultural values have influenced its distinctiveness? How is this this space elaborated as place?
- Which user? – In contrast to long-lasting built environments, a changing user is presumed, with memory and opinions that have been formed a priori. What are the values, memories, experiences and expectations of the contemporary user? Additionally, are contemporary researchers providing new ways to understand human perception that need to be considered?
- Which behaviours? – Human spatial behaviours have cultural baggage. Specific embodied rituals, and the social value we give then, will change over time. Devotional or instrumental? Ceremonial or performative? Active or passive? Re-enacted, re-learned, or re-invented?
This sense of expanded context for the elements of spatial experience helps us investigate AURA’s contribution. Since the spectacle started its daily timed performances in mid-March 2017, visitors have been introduced to new possibilities for personal experience of historical interior space. This stunning show of augmented light and sound transforms the participant’s ability to recognize their own spatial experience, and in this way it may be changing their expectations for future spatial encounters.
AURA. The experience takes place in two parts.
First, we invite you to explore the Basilica while discovering a series of multimedia installations that highlight the artwork beneath the building’s rood screens. Take this time to slow down and connect with the space. (Run time: approximately 20-30 minutes)
Then, an announcement will invite you to make your way to the centre of the Basilica for the second, immersive portion of the experience. No matter where you sit, you’ll be able to enjoy this sensory experience to its fullest! (Run time: approximately 20 minutes)
From website: http://www.aurabasiliquemontreal.com/en/
As observers of this phenomenon, we need to take note. AURA embraces contemporary contexts that influence spatial experience. The architecture is different. The Users are different. The activities are different.
AURA shows how notions of setting in spatial experience need to be considered contextually. AURA uses sophisticated digital mapping technology to project video onto the church’s walls and ceilings, changing the appearance of these surfaces. This visual effect temporarily dematerializes the actual surface in a manner similar to the decorative masking of structure in 18th century Rococo interiors. It creates the illusion of expanding the limits of the built world, opening it up to show forests, storms. While these projections do not have a physical presence, they do reference a virtual architectural effect is believable for today’s viewer. In today’s cities, we are surrounded by glass curtain walls used as environmental skins separating outside and inside. Glass is an invisible, implied plane. As opposed to touching or leaning on the cool, smooth panes of glass, however, many urbanites’ primary experience has been looking at, looking into, and looking through large expanses of glass that reflect the surroundings, or reveal what is usually hidden. On a daily basis, city dwellers can see glass surfaces take the appearance of something else: the setting sun, or a stormy sky, a screen for our desires, or a reflection of ourselves. This experience favours image over physical presence and has its own spatial effect.
Similarly, the inquiry into the perception of these virtual effects may point to renewed thinking about the user as a multi-sensorial being. (Consult this LINK for further reading on this topic.) During the presentation of AURA, images and light move to the rhythm of music coming from speakers located around the space. While the existing architecture is rarely sonically mute, during AURA the acoustic experience saturates the visual experience, placing the user in a heightened state of environmental perception. New research helps us to understand how this works in terms of brain activity. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, a researcher in music perception and cognition, recently published an essay “Music is Not for Ears” (LINK here) exploring how neurological research demonstrates that we experience music in a multi-modal way. Rather than just using one part of our brain to identify the musical notes and patterns, the studies that Margulis cites demonstrate how music activates many different parts of our brain, often creating a powerful, embodied experience. This research prompts new questions about the impact of sound, especially combined with other sensory stimulation, on spatial experience.
Spatial experience is ultimately achieved by a series of activities; with AURA these are explicitly transactional and social. When the viewer pays the ticket fee to gain entrance to this timed experience in a church, they participate in a familiar set of behaviours: access permission is purchased; a visit inside is achieved. During the spectacle, one feels part of a fortunate group to experience something special. There is power in being part of a group. Sociologist and urbanist Richard Sennett has studied the workings of collectives and cities. One of Sennett’s recent essays, “The Pnyx and the Agora” (excerpt LINK here), asks us to consider the overlooked civic benefits of those spaces where citizens are engaged as part of a group with shared focus of attention rather than as part of a group co-existing in a specific locale. At AURA, like at the theatre, the audience’s attention is collectively directed outward toward the timed spectacle, rather than turned inward supporting personal contemplation, or dispersed by independently/haphazardly scanning the wider scene. Viewers see light reflected on the faces of their neighbours, hear the collective gasps of amazement, and secretly watch others sharing in an experience that validates their own. All of these activities are familiar and guided. There isn’t an overt dependence on knowing the acceptable rituals that this particular religious space may require.
When it opened in March 2017 as part of Montreal’s 375 birthday festivities, this temporary spectacle of light and sound that fills an old building filled with new technology promised to bring new life to a heritage landmark. What it also has done is to challenge designers to reconsider the contextual variables that might expand our understanding of spatial experience. Here are some questions that come to mind: How has the common urban experience of mirror reflections ad infinitum changed the way we consider visual cues in architecture? How can multi-sensory experiences better activate a multi-modal spatial experience that feels more satisfying? How might spatial experiences benefit from collective experiences that reference, validate and even seek to improve the contemporary condition? AURA promises to be available in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica at least until the end of December 2017 – plenty of time to debate its lessons.