What if… we thought about digital experiences like architecture?

Web architecture is not a new idea: the term has been coined and defined with supports and structures, good design principles and user needs, form and function. But, from an architectural studies perspective, that’s still the frills around the edges.

Full disclosure, I’m not an architecture person at all. All I remember about squinches from my comprehensive exams is that a thing called a squinch exists. This idea actually sprung from my class’s intro art history lecture on 18th century architecture.

The takeaway of the lecture was that architecture is a mediator of social relationships. Take a lecture hall: the desk are nailed to the ground, facing forward, standing at attention before a central lectern, blackboard, or projector screen. It’s not hard to see how the space enforces the established power dynamics.

But what about these two gardens?

Versailles and Gardens. Image from Wikicommons.

Stourhead Garden, Wiltshire, England. Image from Wikicommons.

The first, Versailles, is manicured into elaborate patterns. Natural and organic elements like water, flowers and trees, are ordered into precise geometric shapes. Stourhead, by contrast, is all irregular curves, overgrown trees and plants, and rolling hills.

To most of us, the difference is just aesthetic. However, as our lecturer informed us, these are spaces are no different from the lecture hall.

Versailles, the brain child of Louis XIV, is all about control. The Sun King required his courtiers to live within his elaborate gilded palace and filled their days with such complex pageantry that there was no time to plot rebellion. Enforced fashions not only impoverished the nobility but forced them into ridiculous preoccupations such as growing out the pinkie nails of their left hand because, at Versailles, some doors could only be scratched, not knocked upon. The gardens were part of this, an expression of the king’s rigid control over every aspect of the aristocrats’ world. Even today, visitors are forced along certain walkways, marveling at a maze of someone else’s design.

Stourhead is no less constructed. Those naturalistic undulating lines of hills and water? Artificially created with a dammed river and shifted dirt to mimic a fashionable landscape painting, not a natural landscape. 18th-century Brits also had an amusing penchant for carting ruins around the country to populate these gardens or even, should need arise, building new ones.

But, as much as Versailles is about control, Stourhead is about exploration. As you walk around, you encounter a Roman temple, a gentle slope, a medieval village, a lake-shore. The trees and waterline are designed to afford different sight lines across these garden, letting visitors visually recombine these elements into new permutations and associations. Although the arrangement is artificial and the plan subtlety but effectively leads you through the experience, the sensation is of free thought and autonomous interpretation.

What does this mean for digital experiences? Well, we have a choice of how we want people to experience our spaces. To simply disseminate information or display awe-inspiring collections, the Versailles style may be very effective. I’m reminded of jewel-box exhibitions like the V&A’s Pearls or the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2011 Set in Style.¬†

But if our goal is along constructivist lines, to encourage visitors to make their own meaning, we should consider how we can create the Stourhead model: Multiple sight lines. Space to sit comfortably, read, play, or imagine. Spaces that are just as well designed, but feel responsive and free even at the expense of a little order and geometry.

This is more of a philosophy than a tool. Take two examples, SFMoMA’s Artscope and the MFA Boston Artist’s Choice touchtable. One is a collections data-base, the other an art-making activity. But both are designed in the Stourhead manner, to create that sense of exploration and discovery.

Artscope at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art online

Artscope at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art online

Artist's Choice Touchtable at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Artist’s Choice Touchtable at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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