Tuesday, 21 January 2014

'Sensing Spaces' at the Royal Academy of Arts: A liberating education on the regenerative power of architecture

Let me start by stating the obvious and undeniable: the exhibition ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ that the Royal Academy of Arts in London is unveiling on 25 January 2014 is, most probably, the best architecture exhibition that you will ever see, and one of the most accomplished and best curated displays of ingenuity that you will be able to experience in your lifetime. And these words come from someone who was sceptical about all the hyperbole that surrounded the build-up of the exhibition over nearly a year.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner



If, like me, you attempt to stay informed about goes on in the art world, you surely realised that it was impossible to avoid the crescendo of information that the Royal Academy’s press team kept producing throughout the last few months: press release followed press release, a blog was created to chart the evolution of the exhibition by curator Kate Goodwin, incremental figures that accounted for the number of screws or tonnes of concrete used in each piece kept being published as teasers of a big spectacle to come, and the expectation to see new work produced by some of the most respected architects of our generation built a dangerous anticipation that could have easily failed to match the final output. Nevertheless, the results are here and ‘Sensing Spaces’ is a triumph.

This is not an architecture exhibition created around the traditional display of blueprints, photographs, models or personal mementoes. Instead, it brings together seven highly experienced architectural practices that, following Goodwin’s invitation, allowed themselves the exploration of architecture’s anchoring principle and fundamental purpose: to reinterpret and rebuild space for the betterment of the individual and of society. To attain this regenerative outcome, the architects were invited to take over 23,000 square feet of the Royal Academy’s main galleries and build physical installations that allowed those who experienced them an education on the multifarious potential of architecture by learning to accept their own personal interpretations of space. What is remarkable in this pedagogical simplicity is that the work on display, rather than focusing on vain solipsistic narratives of how the architect is the only one who is able to understand and mould the material, makes the viewer embrace the spiritual and the sensual and realise that good architecture is, in fact, about how human empathy with the natural and built environment brings out the best thoughts and emotions in each one of us.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Pezo von Ellrichshausen
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Pezo von Ellrichshausen
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Pezo von Ellrichshausen
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Pezo von Ellrichshausen
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner



Engaging visitors with structures, textures, sounds, spaces and even scents, the architects who collaborated on this venture include well-known and emerging practices that hail from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds: Grafton Architects (Ireland), Diébédo Francis Kéré (Germany/Burkina Faso), Kengo Kuma (Japan), Li Xiaodong (China), Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile), and Eduardo Souto de Moura and Álvaro Siza (Portugal) were carefully selected because they share an understanding of the sensorial capacity of architecture and its materiality and also because they all create work that is responsive to people and place. 

On entering the first and largest gallery of the exhibition, viewers are faced with a monumental geometric structure by Pezo von Ellrichshausen that, as it is explored, used and touched, challenges our sense of perspective and dethrones intimidating notions of grandiose scale by allowing an intimate ownership of space and materials. In the next rooms and inspired by the Japanese smell ceremony Ko-Do, Kuma used combinations of thin bamboos that, positioned as delicate sinuous lines in two distinct formations of augmentation and reduction, highlight the importance of scent and vision in constructing space; whereas Kéré’s tunnel squeezed through a large door between two galleries invites visitors to physically interact with the structure’s fabric by inserting colourful plastic straws through its white honeycombed plastic walls. Siza and Souto de Moura’s subtle installations encourage visitors to consider the architectural history and symbolic values of a building by positioning its weight and materiality in an inquisitive raw form.

In one of the most enthralling installations of the exhibition, Li Xiaodong built a peaceful and spiritual labyrinth comprising 21,120 sticks of hazel positioned over an acrylic floor illuminated by bright LEDS that, on leading you to a pebbled zen garden courtyard, makes you realise that, while walking through the corridors and rooms of the installation and experimenting temperature, light, colour and texture, you become the architect and build your personal (and emotional) definition of a building within the Royal Academy’s majestic walls. This sense of monastically inhabiting and appropriating space is further stressed in the adjacent rooms when faced with Grafton’s elegant exploration of light and dimension.

Kengo Kuma
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Kengo Kuma
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Kengo Kuma
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner



The pieces on display in ‘Sensing Spaces’, as well as the quotes projected onto the walls that surround them, force visitors to understand (through a gentle lesson that never patronises those they intend to address) that anyone can understand beauty, art and architecture, and that these are not states of mind or feelings achieved by the very few. In a most accomplished way, Kate Goodwin worked closely with the architects to strip architecture of preconceptions of physical meaning and create a series of pieces that highlight the remarkable simplicity of beauty found in the natural and built environments that envelop us.

Ultimately, ‘Sensing Spaces’ is an exhibition that, by not being about architecture as we know it or expect it to be, teaches us the liberating lesson that understanding the spaces that we inhabit is about comfort, happiness and fulfilment, and that is fine. As Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects states in the short film shown in the last room of the exhibition, you don’t need to be a trained architect to understand architecture and beauty, because beauty happens to us all as human beings. And by making us exercise our emotional intelligence in such a constructive process, ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ becomes one of the most powerful and rewarding demonstrations of the human spirit's potential that you should not miss.

Diébédo Francis Kéré
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Diébédo Francis Kéré
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Diébédo Francis Kéré
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Diébédo Francis Kéré
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Diébédo Francis Kéré
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Eduardo Souto de Moura
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Eduardo Souto de Moura
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Eduardo Souto de Moura
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Eduardo Souto de Moura
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Li Xiaodong
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Li Xiaodong
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Li Xiaodong
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Li Xiaodong
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Li Xiaodong
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Li Xiaodong
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Grafton Architects
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Grafton Architects
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Grafton Architects
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

Grafton Architects
 Photograph © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner






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