Designers and researchers have collaborated on a project to reveal unseen spaces in The Imaginary Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

A joint effort between United Make and University of Melbourne, the project questions the role of Virtual Reality (VR) in spatial design and asks: how does this technology change the way we model objects and understand space? What aesthetics can be produced that have not yet been explored?

These questions are explored through the modelling of Piranesi’s Le Carceri d’invenzione (The Imaginary Prisons), a series of 16 plates first published in 1750. Print from these plates are collated in a volume titled Opere Varie, located at the University of Melbourne’s rare print collection.

The research team used the university’s Plate VII as the starting point for the project. Through three-dimensional digital modelling of the print, the team revealed previously unseen spaces which scholars have claimed are impossible and can only exist on paper.

According to the team, the space Piranesi imagined on paper can exist in virtual reality; it is highly distorted, but remains possible in most instances.

As Piranesi utilised architectural motifs in the same series of plates, the team was able to combine multiple plates into a singular space, including the title plate of Carceri di’invenzione and the vaulted roof of the prison from Plate VI.

The Imaginary Prison ceiling

Lastly, the final model of Plate VII has been “painted” in a three-dimensional environment in VR. This allows the user to experience the etched texture of Piranesi’s print in a physical scale as a materiality. The model produces an anti-surface aesthetic which is unique to the VR modelling environment.

The Imaginary Prison VR

According to the researchers, this work creates a precedent for the use of VR as a design tool in the future.