A New Perspective

Sensing Spaces sees seven international architecture practices transform the Royal Academy into a multi-sensory experience with site-specific installations.

The Royal Academy of Arts has been delivering ground-breaking exhibitions to the public for the past 250 years and having been established by a group of 34 artists and architects, it is one of the few London institutions that places architecture and design on as high a pedestal as fine art. The Academy is also fairly unique in remaining unafraid of dramatic intervention, despite its Grade II listed status; the monumental architecture exhibition Living Bridges (1996), for example, saw water coursing through its main galleries, while it has been said that minute particles of red wax from Anish Kapoor’s 2009 exhibition can still be found in the vents of the gallery floors.

Complex, colossal and emotive, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, is the Academy’s largest architecture exposition to date and proves, according to Kate Goodwin, Drue Heinz Curator of Architecture, that the institution remains “at the forefront of rethinking how architecture is presented.” Rejecting traditional modes of representing architecture, Goodwin has invited seven practices from different cultures, generations and nationalities to create site-specific installations which “explore the essential elements of architecture” and simultaneously connect with the Academy’s existing décor.

While consuming all 23,000 square feet of the Academy’s Main Galleries – even reaching into doorways, outside and high into its gilded ceiling – this group show examines architectural design on a personal scale. The show is intended “to generate a debate about the sensory importance of architecture within our lives” because, as Goodwin explains: “We often discuss it in social, economic and political terms rather than looking at its emotional and psychological effect, and I think that this is because the experience of form can be difficult to articulate.” She continues: “Many people tell me that they don’t know a lot about architecture, but I think we’re much more spatially in tune than we realise: you watch children playing in school playgrounds, and it’s a response to their surroundings. It’s interesting that you can reignite this kind of reaction, and how easily people can then find a way to express the emotional effect that a space has upon them. I don’t think we take enough time to consider how architecture can affect us – how it offers us light or joy – and I hope that this exhibition persuades people to be more aware.”

With this in mind, the architects featured were selected for their shared understanding of sense and space; all creating buildings that are not passive but have a strong, emotionally affecting presence. Hailing from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, and ranging from the long established to the up-and-coming, this group comprises Grafton Architects (Ireland), Diébédo Francis Kéré (Germany/Burkina Faso), Kengo Kuma (Japan), Li Xiaodong (China), Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile), Eduardo Souto de Moura and Álvaro Siza (Portugal). Goodwin enthuses: “I was interested in experts who understood the universal qualities of architecture, but also really considered the location in which their buildings were to be based, and each of these seven really does that by either showing complete harmony or purposefully displaying a kind of tension between building and location. I chose from a long list, and although they have very different methods, the final group we came out with really think of architecture as experience, rather than form.”

The Academy has always used its galleries as a vehicle to provoke discussion, and so Sensing Spaces not only creates a dialogue between the different designers, their new installations and the Academy’s neoclassical style, but also between the designer and his or her own practice. Goodwin suggested that each contributor occupied two rooms, because she “wanted them to be able to create a relationship between two spaces rather than just fill one room”, therefore correlating with the fluid way in which we experience architecture in an ordinary way on a daily basis – rather than in isolated bursts.

In addition to curatorially mirroring our real-life relationship with architecture, Sensing Spaces also explores our response to textures (it is the first RA exhibition that invites visitors to touch), sounds and even scents, to reproduce every aspect of a building that we might notice, physically respond to and remember. Amongst the installations is a nest-like labyrinth designed by Li Xiaodong, built from 20,800 twigs; Kengo Kuma’s contemplative construction, exploring scent through Japanese hinoki wood; and Diébédo Francis Kéré’s movable tunnel, which reveals the aesthetic qualities of an industrial plastic which usually goes unseen. Meanwhile, most directly responding to the history of the Academy are Eduardo Souto de Moura and Álvaro Siza’s cosmetic alterations; Grafton Architects’ exploration of light, which required Goodwin’s team to uncover the Academy’s lofty sky-lights; and Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s monumental “room within a room”, the largest and most physically impressive piece in the show, which takes visitors up high into the upper echelons of the Main Galleries.

In fact, having designed the Academy’s Main Galleries, Victorian architect Sydney Smirke could actually be regarded as Sensing Spaces’ eighth participant: many of the installations either reacting to the decorative aspects, or enabled by the vastness, of his neoclassical spaces. Responding to both qualities, and reaching six metres up into the gallery ceiling, is Chilean couple Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo’s “room within a room”. This is essentially “a platform standing on four big legs, which looks quite monolithic until you notice that inside each leg is an intricate spiral staircase”, Goodwin continues: “If you follow this up, you’re suddenly lifted into a space you never see, and close to the decorative features – the gold garlands, the painted angels – of the Academy ceiling. As we’ve taken the covers off the roof lights, you also experience a change in light and a connection to the sky.”

Pezo von Ellrichshausen is concerned with physical engagement within a space, often “talking about the way that escalators remove the effort of moving up”, and noting the effect that putting force into an experience can have upon its value. For Sensing Spaces, the movement from dark to light, earth to the heavens, is accentuated by first a ramp which “makes your muscles change” and then the spiralling staircases, which focus perspective and encourage touch. These small but important alterations are prime examples of the deliberate decisions that architects make to ensure a two-way relationship between individual and space, and yet they are the very elements that the audience may often overlook in the everyday.

Each of the components that make up Sensing Spaces are active and dynamic, encouraging movement and interaction and guiding the visitor’s eye. However, the approaches of these seven practices remain dissimilar and Goodwin notes that much is brought to the exhibition by their cultural disparity in particular: “Especially distinct are the differing cultural and geographical backgrounds. For example, while Pezo von Ellrichshausen talks very much about charged forms, and how you can ignite a particular object, Kuma considers the anti-object and the Japanese idea of Ma, or the void, which we don’t often think about – it’s this sort of thing that introduces really interesting conversations.” In fact, the divide between East and West is particularly discernible: both Kuma and Xiaodong push the boundaries of organic materials and focus on negative space, whereas the work of the Portugese, Irish, Chilean and German contingency appears rather more high-tech and man-made.

Whilst all of the designers have professed to have learned something about their work during the development of Sensing Spaces, Goodwin explains that Kuma, whose practice has a worldwide profile, actively used the project to test new ideas. His installation is a calming scented space, which takes its inspiration from a Koh-Do, the ancient Japanese incense ceremony, and in this it wholly diverges from what one might normally expect from a survey of architecture. “Kuma needed to use the minimum number of constituents possible so that the scent was more potent and although all of the works excite in a different way, dealing with scent was very interesting – looking at the power of it whilst also working with very fine materials.”

This Japanese architect’s work is technically complex, aesthetically clean, and conceptually concerned with tradition and the “anti-object”; it therefore bears strong similarity to that of Chinese architect Xiaodong, who is influenced by the Chinese tendency to “focus on the intangible rather than the tangible,” highlighting that “you see this in Chinese painting, in which the blank surface is often just as important as what is inscribed.” Sensing Spaces sees both designers create cocoons of sorts, “blank surfaces” in which to reflect; however, where Xiaodong’s piece evokes confinement, Kuma’s reminds of slow-paced rituals and is a gently scented conclusion to the show.

While Kuma finishes the spectacle with the ancient and ephemeral, Álvaro Siza – the most established of the seven – begins the show in the Academy’s Annenberg courtyard, reflecting upon its striking stone facade and initiating the Sensing Spaces experience as soon as you leave Piccadilly. Siza, along with his protégé Eduardo Souto de Moura, examines the neoclassical order of the building through alterations to its grand arches and columns; the two men’s installations are independent yet interlinking, echoing their own relationship and together reflecting Siza’s ethos that architecture does not create something new but instead “transforms reality” – a philosophy again explored by Grafton Architects, who use the redirection of sunlight to bring fluidity to an otherwise static and unengaging space.

Whether the medium is wood or plastic, scent or light, Goodwin observes that each construction is highly complex – describing the entire exhibition as a “technical feat” which, over the course of the past year, has required the work of an enormous team including several structural engineers, the pre-fabrication of a number of works, and a structural assessment of the Academy itself to see just how much weight it could support. Workers had to be flown in from Japan for Kuma as local employees struggled with his traditional materials, and from Chile for Pezo von Ellrichshausen as they understood exactly what aesthetic the duo were looking to achieve – meaning that the 14 month long design and build has been “an interesting mix.”

Surprisingly, it was Kéré’s piece which became the most challenging: a tunnel formed from translucent honeycomb plastic often used inside plasterboard walls or doors, the shape of which visitors are able to manipulate. Originally of Burkina Faso and now living and working in Berlin, Kéré is inspired by the West African building methods that he grew up with: “He wanted to use materials that are available. Kéré has used quite an unglamorous material that we would never normally see, but that actually has really interesting visual properties. The difficulty was turning it into a structure and a discovery of how it could be engineered while also taking into account the appearance. The material brought with it a lot of surprises, as it didn’t behave as we had expected while planning, but it was quite nice to walk away from the computer screen and actually look at the material itself.”

In truth, it is refreshing that the displays of Sensing Spaces step entirely away from the screen. With no CAD drawings or CGI images, the only digital inclusion is a specially made film, which introduces visitors to the architects: visiting their homes, and revealing through interviews their working methods and why they came to produce these bespoke installations.

Even without this film, the values and objectives of these seven architectural practices are clear, and their contrasting and converging work will undeniably achieve Goodwin’s hope for Sensing Spaces: to generate conversation, to challenge the ways in which architecture is presented, and most of all “even if it is just in a moment of appreciating how light moves across a particular surface, to encourage enjoyment and appreciation of the forms around us.”

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined runs until 6 April at The Royal Academy of Arts, London. www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Chloe Hodge