Re-Imagining the New York State Pavilion Using Virtual Reality

By Priya Chhaya posted 05-02-2017 16:28


In 1964–65 New York City hosted the World’s Fair, an event that drew an estimated 51 million visitors to Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park for a celebration of culture and technology. One of structures built for the fair, designed by world-renowned architect Philip Johnson, was the New York State Pavilion. Built with concrete and steel, the pavilion boasts three observation towers and a 100-foot-high, open-air elliptical ring dubbed the “Tent of Tomorrow”—an homage to the space race era during which it was designed. Now sitting at the center of a 1,255-acre urban park, the New York State Pavilion—which was designated a National Treasure in April 2014—is the only structure still standing from the World’s Fair that has not been adapted or restored. 

The New York State Pavilion. | Credit: Christopher D. Brazee

Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation—in partnership with People for the Pavilion and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz—launched an ideas competition to crowdsource possible new uses for this modernist icon. Taking place over the course of three months, this competition was based in an “anything goes” approach to reimaging the pavilion. 

To galvanize the community, RPGA Studio, Inc., and the Hibridos Collective held eight pop-up events that invited both locals and passersby to share their ideas for the future of the pavilion. At each pop-up event, these visitors viewed two potential reuses of the pavilion presented via virtual reality (VR) and 3-D imaging—which includes 360-degree viewing (3-D/360)—and then used those examples to imagine their own future for the site. Their ideas were then designed on-site by technicians using computer-aided design (CAD) software. The competition ended with an exhibit at the Queens Museum. 

Kids using the VR technology at one of the pop-up events for the pavilion. | Credit: Sakeenah Saleem

The use of VR and 3-D/360 viewing for a preservation project made this competition particularly unique. Jason Clement, director of community outreach at the National Trust, explains: 

VR was appealing because of the status of the pavilion as an abandoned structure. On one hand, we had an entire generation of people who saw the pavilion in all its glory during the World’s Fair. They’re super passionate about it and long to once again walk into the “Tent of Tomorrow.” On the other hand, an even bigger subset of people know the pavilion only as a dilapidated place in the middle of the park. Though they may be curious about it, they’ve never been inside and therefore have no idea what they are missing. Through VR we were able to meet both of those challenges because the technology allowed people to actually see and experience the place. We thought that was very important for the ideas competition and for the creative process behind it.

To learn more about the use of VR in this project, we interviewed Yvonne Short, the founder and executive director of RPGA Studio, Inc. 

Visitors look at renderings of potential future uses for the pavilion. | Credit: Sakeenah Saleem

Last year you worked with the National Trust, using VR technology to imagine a new use for the New York State Pavilion. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

First I engaged more than 50 people in a discussion about the pavilion. Many didn’t feel attached to its past, but some were interested in its future. I knew that we had to get people to imagine that future in order to truly engage them. Telling its history and envisioning its future possibilities were both incredibly important. 

Using VR technology and 3-D sculpting tools, we reimagined the pavilion in two ways: as an ice skating rink and as a restaurant. We then set up VR booths in the streets and at the nearby Queens Museum to show community members these possibilities. Positioning the booths on the street generated a lot of interest. Many people—people with bags of groceries, people walking dogs, people with strollers—would stop, sit in the booths, put on the headphones and goggles, and learn about the history of the pavilion. And at the end of the video, they would see it reimagined, which got them excited about its future. It was incredible to engage so many people around the history and future of the pavilion.

Visitors work on their ideas for the New York State Pavilion. | Credit: Sakeenah Saleem

The events attracted attendees from young kids to older adults. Did you get a sense of how various age groups reacted to VR? 

Both younger and older audiences were equally engaged with the technology. As they viewed simulations using the VR headsets, people would put their hands up to catch a piece of pollen or a snowflake only to realize that it was generated by 3-D/360. They were in absolute awe, turning all around in their seats. Both audiences wanted to understand more about the pavilion and the technology. Coupling sound and imagery created a very immersive experience. 

What feedback did you get from people who were introduced to the pavilion for the first time through the events surrounding the ideas competition? 

Many people asked, “How much will it cost to fix it up?” Following their VR experiences of the pavilion, people were able to meet with designers and use computer-aided design (CAD) software to express their ideas about the site’s future. As a result, not only did people get a sense of the problem but they were also able to take part in designing potential solutions. People were excited to sit with CAD designers for 20–30 minutes to express their ideas. 

How does VR function as a tool for placemaking and preservation? What are some of the inherent challenges?

VR can capture spaces in new and creative ways, helping audiences understand both the history of a space and its potential future. A dilapidated building can be instantly transformed into a place for people to gather for tea and ice skating. And 3-D/360 effects make it feel all the more real. Reimagining is that much easier when you can see the rink and hear the laughter of the people enjoying it.

Visitors work with CAD technicians to imagine the future of the New York State Pavilion. | Credit: Sakeenah Saleem

What tips do you have for those who might be thinking about leveraging this new technology in their work? 

While VR is new, it’s easy to engage people with it. As it becomes more widely adopted, telling an incredibly interesting story—and making it interactive, allowing audiences to respond and have input—will be imperative. It’s also important to bring the technology to people: at dog walks, on the streets, in parks, and so forth.

Aside from VR, what digital preservation and placemaking technology do you see coming down the pike?

We are already coupling VR with CAD design tools. We are also looking at the potential of augmented reality to deliver fresh experiences and at new 3-D/360 cameras to increase our ability to tell interesting stories. 

What were some of the challenges with using this technology?

This is relatively new technology, so there is a learning curve with both the software and the hardware. But it’s developing quickly! Applications that couldn’t be tethered to a laptop a year ago are now supported through several laptop makers, which allows us to use better graphics. Each year will bring better, more stable hardware and software and more opportunities, and VR will likely become easier to use.

In addition to the on-the-ground submissions, a number of ideas came through from all around the world. This idea was selected to represent the creativity of the Queens community. 

Are there any lessons learned from the project? What types of costs are involved

The main costs were hardware, which came to about $8,000; staffing time, which cost a little more than $11,000; and transportation and set-up costs at about $400. 

We learned the importance of creating something versatile and portable and taking the project to the streets. Create a little VR booth that allows you to explain your project and gets your audience started down the road of possibilities. Create something that can go on a street corner or be set up in a park. 

Also, having designers on hand to help people articulate their visions is crucial. We didn’t just throw a VR headset at the community—we trained designers to capture audience ideas, the possibilities they were able to imagine as a result of the VR installation. 

Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the manager for online content and products at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Follow her on Twitter @priyastoric.

#NYStatePavilion #Technology #NationalTreasure #Modernism

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