VR Gesturing: Re-imagining Piranesi

BY Paul Loh, Mond Qu and David Leggett

THEME LEADER The National Gallery of Victoria

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Paul Loh, Mond Qu and David Leggett examine the role of virtual reality in spatial design, examining how this technology not only influences but changes the way that designers, architects and artists model objects, perceive and understand space. To test the full capabilities of virtual reality, Paul Loh and his research team undertook a virtual modelling of an illustration by eighteenth century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Piranesi’s Le Carceri d’invenzione – Prison of invention (also known as The Imaginary Prisons) is a series of 16 etchings, first published as a volume in 1750 and held in the University of Melbourne’s Rare Book collection. Loh’s team used Plate VII as the starting point, digitally modelling the scene as originally imagined by Piranesi in his illustration. The researchers were able to bring to life in 3D the 2D spaces of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prison, which scholars had previously thought could not feasibly exist as real, constructible spaces.

  • Podcast: Timothy Moore interviews Paul Loh and Mond Qu


Virtual Reality (VR) has exploded into mainstream media and is now being introduced into the design process of artists, architects and designers.

This project questions the role of this emerging tool 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? The research presents time based modelling in an immersive virtual environment.

This endeavor is explored through the modelling of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Le Carceri d’invenzione; prison of invention or more commonly known as; The Imaginary Prisons. This is a series of 16 Plates first published in 1750. Prints from these Plates are collated in a volume titled Opere Varie, published between 1804 – 1807 (Ficacci 2000); the first Paris edition volume is located at the University of Melbourne’s rare print collection.

Research methodology

The research team used Melbourne University’s Plate VII as the starting point for the project. Through 3 dimensional digital modelling of the print, the team reveals unseen spaces of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. Scholars have claimed that the spaces in the series are impossible and can only exist in paper (Mortensen 2017), however, our analytical discovery of the space reveals otherwise. Firstly, the space that Piranesi imagined on paper can exist in virtual reality; it is highly distorted, but remains possible in most instances. Secondly, through VR technology, we can experience hitherto unseen spaces of Plate VII. The research team discerns that Piranesi utilizes repeating architectural motifs in the same series of Plates, and because of this discovery, the team combined multiple plates into a singular space, including the title plate of Carceri d’invenzione and the vaulted roof of the prison from Plate VI. Lastly, the final model of Plate VII is “painted” in a 3 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. Re-imagining Piranesi speculates on the use of VR as a potential design tool for the future.


The result examines the relationship between the body’s gestures and its physical manifestation; where each stroke and movement is translated into marks on the digital model. We will be capturing the interface between the physical and digital environment through Google Tilt Brush, recording it with digital film and the Xbox KinectTM to understand as well as explore these relationships. The project experiments with emerging design techniques where the physical act of the designer is placed in direct contest with the object we model; no longer are we bounded by the flatland of paper. For the NGV Triennial, we will compile a 2-3min video capturing the process and experience of the Carceri Plate VII and VI in 3-Dimensions.

Paul Loh is lecturer in Digital Architecture design at the University of Melbourne.
Mond Qu is the Director at United Make (UDMK).
David Leggett is co-founder at Power to Make.
Project team: Jannette Le and Matthew Greenwood
Timothy Moore is director of architecture practice Sibling.


Ficacci, L.: 2000. Piranesi The complete etchings, Taschen, Italy.

Mortensen, C.: 2017. Piranesi’s Carceri as Inconsistent. Available at: https://arts.adelaide.edu.au/philosophy/inconsistent-images/piranesi [Accessed 19 July 2017]