Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined
Royal Academy of Arts, London
25 January - 6 April 2014
Review by Edwina Attlee
‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ sets out to draw our attention to the buildings and spaces we travel through, work and dwell in, in our day-to-day lives. Famously the art form we consume in a state of distraction, architecture is, by design, the scenery for drama rather than its subject. The exhibition sets out to shift this background into the foreground.
Gathering together seven architects from around the world, and asking each of them to construct a space within the space of the Academy, the provocation is to consider how vision, touch, sounds and memory play a role in our perception of space, proportion, materials and light. The evangelistic tone of the brief, to engage with ‘how architecture might move beyond the practical and the functional and address the human spirit’ is deflated in the hands-and-feet, on-and-in appeal of the installations. What the Royal Academy have in their midst is essentially a crowd-pleasing playground.
Taking the exhibition at its word this review will look at it from the perspective of human encounter, because what was arresting was the way the different spaces made people behave. Even when we are directed to focus on the sensation of space the unconscious and immediate effect of a space on our senses means we feel a place long before we can know what we think of it.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s piece looked to me like a vast sandcastle. The sand-effect is created by the use throughout of identical wooden slats. Entering one of four uniform towers you step onto wide and inviting spiral stairwells. These lead round and round and up and out into a viewing pen which is perched close to the ceiling. It is a fort and as such inspired fort-like feelings of possession and aggression (nowhere else was I more bothered by the presence of other people, all of them in my way, all of them ruining the effect that the space so clearly was made for). It’s not really the done thing to reference Ikea in an architectural review but this is what the pleasing pine slats of the space reminded me of. I wanted to run my hands along it and happily tapped and clapped my feet on its sound and sturdy floor. This bodily involvement is part of the intent of the architects who have said that the iron handrails which loop each of the stairwells will be smoothed by each hand that uses them, growing more pleasing to touch the more they are touched.
From here people drifted to Kengo Kuma’s blackened rooms, filled with floor-lit constructions of bent bamboo and twine. Like a nightclub these rooms are cordoned off by heavy black curtains and admission is granted by a bouncer. Anticipation is everything; once inside my fellow gallery-goers were guest-like and reverential; it was as quiet as a church. This was a space they moved around rather than through. What they saw was a spindly skeleton of a nest, a field of grass by candlelight. I was reminded of basket weaving. It smelt of potpourri, which we later discovered was an olfactory echo of Kuma’s childhood home. It was here in the subdued hush of the void that I could first hear snippets of suitably self-conscious gallery observations; ‘Mmm, yes, it’s very interesting’.
Inhibitions were shed like so many layers of damp clothes around Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s plastic honeycomb igloo, a sort of two-domed tunnel which connects two of the galleries and which was rapidly disappearing under the weight of weightless rainbow-coloured straws. People stood around in groups or on their own concentrating on making shapes and structures from the straws which they then attached (with some difficulty) to the igloo. Children were everywhere. It was a hubbub of noise and colour and friendly activity. ‘The point is to try to be a child again’, Kéré instructed, ‘to feel your brain connected to the structure.
Li Xiaodong’s winding route is in contrast rather serious - dark and imposing maze structure made from packed rows of sticks which never fail to look occult to me. Out of the gloom materialised the comic surprise of fridge-type spaces, little pantries or larders where people can rest. The yellow light and smoothly sanded wood, deep in the forest dark, gave the booths the appearance of sauna steam rooms. It was amusing to look in and find a fully clothed couple looking exceptionally guilty. A space for playing hide and seek.
Grafton Architects have made the most overwhelming of the installations. Where it might be possible to resist playing or being suitably awed by the other spaces, the handling of light and by consequence atmosphere in their galleries is like a command. Gallery wanderers were instantly stilled, stalled by the sudden apprehension of weight and space and light. People sat and looked up, calm and pliant like patients in a waiting room or commuters at a bus stop. The least readable in terms of intent, this is the set of spaces that has stayed with me the most. As I try to unpick what it was I was sensing I can only land upon the pleasurable contemplation of space and a church-like peacefulness. Here was that intangible ‘spirit’ mentioned in the exhibition brief.
While the distinction made between functional and humane architecture is always one that should be dismantled and while it is patronising to assume that people are not acutely aware of the spaces they move through daily, this is an important exhibition - and not just because you get the chance to rub your hands along the ceiling of the Royal Academy. As I left I noticed that people kept dropping things in the gift shop. Temporarily disorientated, as though their inner balance had been knocked off kilter, they were having to readjust to the dense assault course and badly designed space of the real world. Knocking an audience (even temporarily) out of kilter can be no bad thing.