Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy 03/03/2014

Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy – 03/03/214

PRESS RELEASE – “The decisions we make are not all conscious,” reflects Álvaro Siza, one of seven architects invited by curator Kate Goodwin to design and install an immersive installation within the galleries of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. “What we do depends much on our experiences.” It is these subconscious memories and instinctive reactions to light, material, and space that visitors to Sensing Spaces are invited to experience first hand.


This show is about the force of architecture, the effective use of built elements to create feelings, reactions and responses. This is something that architecture does by virtue of its spatial qualities in the real world without question, but something that is almost impossible to transfer into any gallery space. At Sensing Spaces the elements of architecture’s power to create effect are used to express the essential qualities of the built environment, with both humour and beauty.

The main galleries of the Royal Academy were transformed by installations created by seven artists/architectural practitioners from around the world: Grafton Architects, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Kengo Kuma, Li Xiaodong, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Álvaro Sizaand Eduardo Souto de Moura. Their installations set out to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery environment. As our daily activities of working, sleeping, being entertained, usually take place within the world of architecture, sometimes even interacting with it. Buildings and structures are an ever-present background to our lives. This exhibition elicits carefully considered reactions from visitors with room-scaled models.

Standing in the octagonal Central Hall of the Academy’s Main Galleries, you are invited to make your own path through the space. Through the doorway to the left, an angular viewing platform supported by four megalithic, cylindrical pillars draws you in. Designed by young Chilean practice Pezo von Ellrichshausen, the pine board structure is fortress-like, evoking the urge to explore, as you walk up a zigzagging ramp or ascend one of the spiral staircases that wind up the interior of each pillar to access a square viewing deck. From this lofty height, the structure’s high walls block the view below, instead drawing attention to the gallery’s Neoclassical, gilded ceiling and providing a unique opportunity to see it in detail

The installations, with varying degrees of success, go beyond the functional and visual to explore the physical sensation of inhabiting architecture, while also providing insight into the background and sensibilities of each practice.

Architectural exhibitions usually display drawings, photographs and models of the works produced by the participating architects. In that way, the visitor is distanced from the direct contact with the buildings. The physical exploration of them though is usually the key to understanding them. In the real world, one sees buildings, enters them, move inside them, inhabit them. Appreciating their qualities takes time, sometimes changing in the process. The sounds, smells, materials, views and volumes of the buildings tackle our senses and become part of the whole process.
In this exhibition, instead of models and photos and drawings, we got to see the real thing: the “buildings”themselves. We got to experience the nature of the physical spaces, interact with them. The curator said that in the heart of the exhibition is the interaction with three factors: the nature of physical spaces, our perception of them and their evocative power. The installations we experienced (because we did not simply see them) highlighted different aspects of architecture: from manipulating light, mass and structure, to transformations brought about by use, movement and interaction.
The selection of the architects was made based on their engagement with how architecture might move beyond the practical and functional to address the human spirit. They consider how people will inhabit their buildings, how human body and its senses responds to their spaces. They use their appreciation of history to create buildings that acknowledge the past but also are highly meaningful within the present. Their works are strongly anchored in their contexts: from the urban or natural landscapes in which they are located to the cultures and traditions that surround them. The architects’ different geographical, generational and cultural sensibilities enrich the array of perspectives and encourage a broader understanding of what architecture can offer us.
Kate Goodwin, the curator of the show, conceived the exhibition in a spirit of enquiry, having had discussions with the architects and developed it through the process of design. Each architect worked with an open brief: to explore the potential of architecture, its relevance to people, the connections it evokes, and how these might be conveyed using architectural constructions within the Neoclassical galleries of the Royal Academy.  Each one proposed initial ideas which then found homes in particular places and evolved in response to their location, setting up dialogues with each other and the existing spaces. This resulted in installations that individually and collectively suggest the potential of “architecture reimagined”, which is used as the subtitle of the show. The exhibition might be likened to a city, gaining its vitality and character from the ensemble as much as from its individual elements. And of course, like all cities, it needed people to bring it to life.
The curator writes that the architects were invited to create the spaces but this in no way implies that architecture is the sole territory for them. Our responses to buildings or spaces are neither determined by the architect nor inherent in the architecture itself. Although the exhibition demonstrates each architect’s intentions, it is equally concerned with what visitors discover exploring the installations and responding to them. As seen above, Berlin-based, African-born architect Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s encourages a childlike feeling of freedom with a polypropylene archway into which visitors are encouraged to push plastic straws. After months of interaction, the result is a structure with an extremely stubbly, multicolored skin that both adults and children feel compelled to touch and play with. Sucking visitors in through its low but cavernous entranceway, the textured tunnel narrows in the middle before opening up and ejecting them from the other side—what can be a bright, but rather brief, experience on a crowded day.
This was perfectly clear in the installation Made of a base consisting of honeycombed plastic panels (1867 pieces) forming a tunnel of sorts that visitors were free to put onto the structure in any way they wanted. The result was a living structure that changed every moment of the exhibition, from the beginning till the end. Kere’s point is clear: “I believe it is important to engage people in the process of building so they have an investment in what is developed.”
As well as enabling the visitors to find greater pleasure in the spaces they inhabit, the exhibition helped heighten their awareness of the sensory realm of architecture and thereby encouraged perhaps the creation of a more rewarding built environment. After the tunnel, one came up to a portal made by Eduardo Souto de Moura that echoed the frame of the entrance it was installed in. It gave me the impression of an added dimension to the space and building.
Right next to it, was the entrance to perhaps my favourite environment of the exhibition: the gate of Li Xiaodong’s installation, a labyrinthine “hose”complete with courtyard/garden. Going through it, with the brightly lit floor and wooden walls was an incredible experience.

In this one can really understand the connection between traditional and modern, local (Chinese) and international, while at the same time have all their senses alert to fully experience the installation.

Taking a more serious tone, Chinese architect Li Xaodong has created a maze-like series of passageways lined with raw hazel sticks. Lit by LED floor panels, visitors navigate their way through the narrow corridor to a calming Zen garden complete with a pebble floor and a mirrored wall that heightens the sense of entering a wide-open space. The odour of the wood is strong, and the eerie white floor casts light that filters between the walls made of tree branches. The progression through this space then delivers you into a room of rocks and something reminds you of being outside, of the natural world though you are most assuredly, even doubly, indoors. Architecture has the power to transport, and Li demonstrates this with a poetic gesture which is easy to read.


Equally immersive is Kengo Kuma’s atmospheric bamboo installation [as seen below]. Set across two dimly lit spaces, he whittled bamboo sticks into a delicate lattice structure and infused them with the scent of Hinoki wood and Tatami mats—aromas that are evocative of the traditional Japanese houses that Kuma grew up in and, he admits, are still capable of sending him into a deep sleep.


In contrast, Irish practice Grafton Architects has used the gallery’s soaring roof to explore the human attraction to light cycles. Working across two gallery spaces—one dark and one light—the architects have installed a series of sculptural, suspended volumes to capture and sculpt daylight that filters into the gallery. In the darker, larger space, light enters through an opening in a monolithic structure that has been inserted into the roof. Subtle variations in light and shadow play across its clean, angular surfaces, causing visitors to stop and marvel. Through the gloom, an archway of bright light beckons you into a smaller, dazzlingly bright gallery where a series of white plaster slats hang across the ceiling, reflecting and diffusing the light around the room.

The subtlest of interventions are by the Portuguese Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, who have made a cast concrete replica of two of the gallery’s ornate marble archways. Cast in reinforced concrete using high precision joinery molds, the Brutalist-style replicas are placed perpendicular to their originals, inviting the observer to compare and contrast. Also inspired by the Academy’s architecture, Siza has installed three yellow concrete columns in the gallery’s exterior courtyard: one complete, one with a missing capital, and one on its side as if toppled over, with its capital lying close by. It’s a peculiar sight in such a formal setting, but i feel as though she has fulfilled the exhibition’s ultimate goal: to bring the experiential qualities of architecture to the front.

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