Sensing Spaces

This review was written in response to the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition last year and explores ideas around curation, and around a sensory approach to architectural practice.

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The central problem of curating a show about architecture is how to attend to the qualities of space, light, and scale which are so central to the discipline, but which are difficult to assess from the elevations, models and renderings which populate more traditional exhibitions of the craft. The notion of commissioning architects to produce environments that somehow embody their philosophies and central concerns is not totally new (the architectural pavilion serves this function) but it is a concept that some more adventurous institutions are now willing to bring within the walls of the gallery. Exhibitions including New Nordic at Copenhagen’s Louisiana museum (2012) along with their current Arab Contemporary have invited architects to install structures that engage the viewer more directly and experientially in their work. While architectural biennales in Venice, Shenzhen and Hong Kong and elsewhere have a slightly longer history of employing installation to communicate the abstract qualities of the built form.

The Royal Academy’s decision to emphasise the spaces created by architects and architecture in their current exhibition Sensing Spaces is, however, a significant one. It signals a desire to move away from popular discourses around contemporary architecture which emphasise the external, structural, monumental qualities of the form (discourses frequently reinforced by illustration and photography that draw attention to glittering façades and gleaming towers) towards a more phenomenological, experiential mode of engagement with the built environment. To emphasise this point, and to enable visitors to gain an understanding of the output of architects whose studios are located as far away as Chile, China and Germany, the Royal Academy has invited seven architectural practices to intervene in its extensive galleries.

As I wandered through the cavernous rooms occupied by Irish practice Grafton Architects’ installation I felt ambivalent about the exhibition. The suspended volumes that occupy the high ceilings of the gallery seemed to take the brief to explore space rather literally, so I was pleased to enter into the environment that represents Chinese architect Li Xiaodong’s contribution to the show. Xiadong’s exhibit evokes a grove at the centre of a forest, large dusty pebbles crunch under-foot in a clearing magically extended by use of mirrors. One then enters into a series of maze-like corridors in which branches still covered in bark form screens allowing some light, sound, and movement through, but simultaneously creating a sense of containment. These narrow pathways are lit from below by patchy panes of translucent plexiglas beneath which halogen tubes hum like cicadas, casting up a cool, bluish moonlight as if the sky were beneath my feet. Here and there a booth appears, niched into the tactile surface of the screens, dim spaces of quiet isolation. It is a pleasing, playful installation strongly relating to Xiadong’s practice in which natural, untreated elements form cladding, partitions, and platforms. But Xiadong is not the only exhibitor to signal an interest in contemporary uses of natural materials.

A few galleries later, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has created a sepulchral space: fronds of bamboo grow from concealed spots of illumination, conducting light along their fine filaments into the darkened room. These twisting fronds form networks of undulating shapes captivating in their combination of structural complexity and material simplicity. The installation would have felt perfectly serene, a secular temple, if not for other visitors whose clumping feet disrupting the calm. While Xiadong’s environment felt uncannily familiar, referring both to the natural world and to traditional East Asian methods of construction, Kuma’s piece seemed much more abstract and alien: as if viewing microscopic organisms enlarged to a massive scale.

This sense of disorientation, and scale is employed somewhat divergently by Chilean architectural duo Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen, whose enormous platform, supported by four massive columns, fills one end of an expansive gallery. Ascending to the top of the platform – via spiral staircases concealed in a column – I was suddenly brought startlingly close to the gallery’s ceiling. From this vantage point I became much more aware of the Royal Academy as a building, and I reflected on the strangeness of the original fine, detailed mouldings (incorporating neo-classical and gothic motifs besides pouting Pre-Raphaelite angels in Liberty-robes) installed high above the visitors’ heads. Perhaps, I reasoned, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s formalist treatment of the platform juxtaposed against the lush ornamentation of the gallery was intended as a comment on the status of decoration in contemporary architecture, so I was perplexed by their statement on the gallery wall:

‘we are not trying to express the structural properties of buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequences, the way they open – simple things that taken together suggest something more complex.’

The Pre-Raphelite angels in whose company they had placed me suggested something very complex, but it wasn’t to do with the sequence of rooms.

Perhaps architects aren’t always the best advocates of their own work, but while Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s comments on their practice alienated me, I noticed that the video accompanying the exhibition had the reverse effect of warming me to some the exhibits. Berlin based Burkina Fasoian architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, presented an installation featuring an arched structure thatched in brightly-coloured plastic-straws which could be slotted in or taken out at will. While it had seemed a fun and engaging piece in the gallery space, it gained a greater significance in his description of a practice that incorporated the community into every part of the design and construction process. Not all of the exhibits were equally successful or eloquent and I was left cold, for example, by Eduardo Souto de Moura’s cast of an existing doorway in the Royal Academy placed at an acute angle to the original. As an exhibition, however, Sensing Spaces achieves much: reconnecting the viewing public with the tangible qualities of architecture experienced up close, and to demonstrating the ingenuity of architects in creating spaces that speak to us in subtle, beautiful and engaging ways. Of course, ‘real world’ constraints often impinge on architects’ abilities to construct the harmonious environments of their imaginations, but that too is the value of an exhibition of this sort, freed of practicalities it can exist as pure rhetoric: a manifesto in concrete, bamboo and plastic straws.

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