"Drawing on the Water Surface."
courtesy teamLab Planets "Drawing on the Water Surface."

Knee-deep in dark water, goldfish approach and swim around my legs. The iridescent hues of these carp—red, magenta, yellow, and indigo—fill the visible color spectrum. When I wade forward, the fish dart in response, circling my legs and forming fluid light trails in their wake.

Even if I try to touch these beautiful specimens, it is impossible, because they don’t exist. The carp are projected onto the water’s surface from scores of overhead projectors, which collectively construct a seamless depiction of hundreds of swimming, polychromatic vertebrates. Like living fish, these playful digital entities constantly change their speed, direction, and vibration in response to the presence of human visitors. Unlike the biological variety, these fish embody unnatural hues and form chromatic vapor trails that transform into flowers.

I am at teamLab Planets, an interactive art destination in southern Tokyo. Created by the Japanese art collective teamLab, Planets is an expansive museum with four large indoor spaces and two day-lit gardens. The exhibition is an expansion of the previous teamLab Borderless installation, which was recognized as the most visited museum globally by Guinness World Records in 2021 and designated as one of Time magazine’s “World’s Greatest Places” in 2019.

"The Infinite Crystal Universe."
courtesy teamLab Planets "The Infinite Crystal Universe."

Planets exemplifies the rising trend in immersive art, which aims to envelop visitors in memorable multisensory experiences. This approach shifts the paradigm of art as objects occupying space to the space itself, which is typically transformed via multi-surface digital image projection. The surge in popularity of immersive art is changing the fundamental design of exhibitions, and artist-focused shows—such as Immersive Van Gogh—are becoming very lucrative endeavors for museums.

Although critics lament the conversion of master artists’ works into popular entertainment, immersive art represents a diverse range of manifestations, including National Graphic’s Beyond King Tut exhibition, the Area15 entertainment destination in Las Vegas, and the Magentaverse by Artechouse and Pantone. More than a fad, immersive art offers innovative strategies for uniting bits and atoms, or digital content and physical space, to create novel experiential possibilities. Planets, which eschews thematic content in favor of elemental experience, reveals how these strategies reinforce fundamental themes for architecture and design beyond the museum setting. The art destination also demonstrates the power of physical places (as opposed to virtual realms) in conveying meaningful impressions.

For example, "The Infinite Crystal Universe” pushes the known boundaries of digital-physical interfaces, allowing users to experience seemingly limitless space and information. Thousands of multicolored, programmable LEDs are suspended in translucent plastic conduits from the ceiling. The varying lengths and locations of these thin light columns, which are arrayed in a regular grid, delineate corridors or rooms as well as zones occupied entirely by dense constellations of illumination. All sides of the gallery, including the floor and the ceiling, are clad in mirrors that create infinite reflections. Occupants use an app on their smartphones to “select stars to throw into the Infinite Crystal Universe,” according to a description from the museum, and the presence and location of occupants further influence these light effects. This installation is an antidote to VR, which requires individuals to don clunky headsets and project an appearance as an avatar. In this space, users encounter 360-degree immersion as a bodily experience and see others as they are, occupying the same universe.

"Expanding Three-dimensional Existence in Transforming Space."
Blaine Brownell "Expanding Three-dimensional Existence in Transforming Space."

The physical dimension is likewise enhanced in spaces that invite movement and interaction—activities recognized as critical for physical health—which are constrained in VR. “Expanding Three-dimensional Existence in Transforming Space - Flattening 3 Colors and 9 Blurred Colors” is a mirror-clad room full of giant spherical balloons. Each translucent, internally lit sphere emits one of 12 prescribed colors based on a traditional Japanese palette called kasane no irome (nuances of layered colors). By firmly pushing a sphere, occupants cause a color shift that triggers a similar change in its neighbors.

"Soft Black Hole."
Blaine Brownell "Soft Black Hole."

Another installation, “Soft Black Hole - Your Body Becomes a Space that Influences Another Body,” incorporates rigorous physical activity. The entire floor consists of fabric-covered foam that forms uneven hills and valleys. Participants attempting to traverse the space face a challenging enterprise: Users’ feet sink into the foam, and the presence of other occupants creates unexpected movement based on the dynamic distribution of weight. Much stumbling and laughter ensue. According to the artists, we have become too accustomed to rigid, flat, and even surfaces—something rarely found in nature. “This installation is a space to remind us of the body that we have forgotten in everyday life, and to make us more conscious of our body mass,” they explain.

In addition to physical exercise, mental health is becoming a priority in the constructed environment. Biophilic design incorporating daylight and living flora has been shown to be effective in improving overall wellbeing. In “Floating Flower Garden: Flowers and I are of the Same Root, the Garden and I are One,” visitors are surrounded by orchids. Like the LED strands in the “Infinite Crystal Universe,” the flowers are arranged in continuous lines along inconspicuous vertical cables suspended from above. Also similar is the use of mirror panels to magnify the immersion effect. A difference here is that the ceiling features a daylight-filtering skylight that provides an even distribution of natural light throughout the space. Additionally, the orchid strands here are connected to actuators that slowly move up and down according to the presence of occupants, animating the flowers and enhancing the dispersion of their fragrance. Generating long queues, “Floating Flower Garden” is one of the most popular installations at Planets—a testament to the experiential potency of this biophilic sanctuary.

"Floating Flower Garden."
courtesy teamLab Planets "Floating Flower Garden."

As the popularity of immersive art continues to grow, teamLab’s Planets serves as an enlightened model for creating memorable spaces that maximize experiential potential. Most significantly, the creative solutions that Planets demonstrates regarding the sophisticated applications of physical-digital interfaces, encouraging physical activity and engagement, and enhancing mental well-being are lessons that can and should be applied throughout the designed environment.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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