The 3D Wunderkammer took shape as a result of fieldwork in an architectural office, in close cooperation with the architects, and inspired by the cabinets of curiosities of the 17th and 18th century, such as the Wunderkammer of Rudolf II in Prague. These cabinets of curiosity housed collections of heterogeneous objects, featuring “hundreds of icons, alluring apparatus, a multitude of mirrors, maps, charts, drawings, instruments” (Stafford 1996, p. 28). Visitors used them as an inspirational resource for their work in the arts, the sciences, philosophy, and politics. One of the most interesting features of a Wunderkammer was that it presented these objects in a way that did not impose an ordered set of relationships and ways of interpreting on the user.

The need for a modern cabinet of curiosity was confirmed by observations of the ways in which architects collect, archive, and search for inspirational material, and how they use it for developing, expressing, communicating, and presenting their work. From these observations we learned:

  • One of the main features of architects’ work practice is the intensely visual character of the way working material (most of which is visual and graphical itself) is handled and arranged – on tables, in the meeting room, on the studio walls. This visuality is an integral aspect of architects’ work environment and of their ways of capturing and communicating ideas.
  • Memories of ‘place’ influence the architects’ strategies of searching for and retrieving material. In particular association material is strongly connected with places, such as a book, file or catalogue, a movie, museum, building, or particular landscape.
  • Inspirations often arise from the transient and ephemeral way in which these association objects are encountered, their peripheral presence in the back of one’s mind, and with activities that are connected to movement, such as browsing, flipping through.
  • Architects’ aesthetic categorizations and the inspirational character of material are strongly dependent on the context in which they arise. Professional designers reflexively construct the imagined qualities of a space, and the objects that help them capture and express these qualities are deeply intertwined with descriptions in talk, embodied action, and people.
virtual world

The designer team translated these observations into an approach, which builds on the metaphors of travel and of ‘the world as exhibition’ as stimulating ways of encountering materials. The idea was to design worlds of intuitively knowable places, which provide visual associations for inspirational materials.

The current working prototype of the 3D Wunderkammer offers a set of well-developed functionalities for navigating, searching for, and viewing (collections) of multimedia materials. It runs in a web-browser in an ordinary, affordable technical environment. The program is a set of Java Applets, and uses a standard plug-in to display VRML. We have installed the Wunderkammer in a real working environment for an extended period of experimentation and made a web based version available as a virtual world in a hands-on way.

The 3D world with its diversity of places, atmospheres, and landmark objects provides a rich and significant context for placing visual material, with the third dimension dramatically increasing the space for storing, viewing, presenting, and interacting with objects (Fig. 1). Clicking, browsing, and scrolling between places with material is substituted by continuously moving – walking, flying – through a particular geography. The continuous movement has a zooming effect – images grow ‘into the screen’ and disappear again. The ‘magical’ features of digital worlds, such as floating, flying, teleportation, and moving through solid objects can be used for reinforcing the experiential character of the worlds.

People, who primarily use the Wunderkammer as a visual archive, tend to prefer the simpler ‘thematic’ places for their collections of inspirational objects. Here memory is tightly connected to place and images are retrieved by revisiting a particular place. Use as a source of inspiration puts emphasis on the unfamiliar, on surprise and discovery. A third focus that emerged is on the Wunderkammer as an exhibition and presentation space (Fig. 2). The Wunderkammer invites and enables users to experiment with context, scenography, and arrangements (Wagner Ed 2001).