Most architectural exhibitions display representations of buildings: drawings, models and photographs. Therefore the exhibits are accessible mostly to architects or architectural enthusiasts who can read the drawings and understand them. This is more or less what I was expecting from “Sensing Spaces” but I was pleasantly surprised. The architects who participated were asked to produce installations that visitors would walk into and explore themselves. Curiosity and excitement was what I mainly observed on people’s faces upon their entrance to each of the exhibits. There was no designated route to follow and I enjoyed being able to sit down for as long as I wanted in each of the rooms and then revisit some of them as well. The short documentary screened in one of the galleries shed more light on the actual structures. The architects who have created the exhibits present some examples of their built work and then explain how their Royal Academy installations express what they usually try to achieve with their buildings.
What I found really interesting was that the sensory aspect of the structures was deeply connected to each architect’s theory. This is often the driving force behind the creation of good architecture. Symbolisms clearly emerge from all the installations and they are evoked mostly by the use of architectural elements that refer to actual buildings. The exhibits ultimately produce spaces that one enters to experience their creator’s image of the world. In that way all of them are good examples of architectural art. Still I believe that architecture is extremely potent because it has the ability to achieve a lot more than just to bring forth an opinion about the world. It actually has the power to address and affect people directly. Of course this particular architectural exhibit placed in a gallery as it is, becomes more conceptualised and symbolic than most realised buildings could ever be. Few installations even manage to make statements that refer to societies and politics and not only to aesthetics and design styles.
Diébédo Francis Kéré attempted to do that. Visitors are encouraged to create little structures out of colourful straws provided in the gallery and incorporate them in Kere’s installation. The backdrop for the visitors’ art works is a cave-like corridor where one has to cross and possibly interact with other people as it is quite narrow in the middle. Hence the architect’s aim is to create a sense of togetherness through collective participation in the project. Of course this can prove to be tricky in a space filled with Londoners that by definition are chaotic as a whole because of their very multi-cultural background and agendas.
The other installation where I felt truly aware of other people was the twig maze created by Li Xiaodong. The illuminated floor made the experience even more peculiar and enhanced what Xiaodong described as defamiliarised space. In such a space people cannot but notice one another. Encounters seem multiplied because of the absence of sense of place. I also liked Xiaodong’s explanation for the placement of the zen garden with the mirror in the middle of the installation, which incidentally I found quite psychoanalytical. He said that he put it there so that people could instantly realise what it means to be able to see, to be orientated, opposed to being disorientated as one is in a maze.
The Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation is one that stands out a lot with its grand scale. Powerful from afar, it gradually unfolds as one realises that it is possible to enter and climb it. This is not obvious from the beginning because most views from within the structure are restricted. Therefore people in it can not be seen from the outside and the whole thing looks like an impenetrable sculpture. Going around the base of it I found the stairs and climbed on the terrace which actually felt like a box without a lid. I cannot say that I particularly liked that feeling. I found it to be a cruel joke that reminds people who is in control: the architects. Two small holes on the wooden walls only allow views to the golden angels’ faces on the gallery’s plasterwork. And for those who decide to get down on their knees and look through an additional hole close to the floor, the room’s doorway is visible. I did not appreciate that gesture or symbolism either because it vaguely felt like a punishment. It seemed that the bold architectural statement was made so that people would remember the firm’s brand even though they felt uncomfortable. I had a similar feeling watching the architects’ interview where they seem quite taken by their own work. They speak of their choice to use a mutated neutral palette of elements but that does not necessarily mean they are humble. Their “being interested in inventing something absolutely new that will be created from scratch without any references” sounded rather pompous. Unfortunately I believe the talented young architects have missed where zen-simplicity ends and the almost totalitarian-brutalist gesture begins.
Grafton, the architectural practice from Ireland wanted to speak of light. In the video-interview they mention that good architecture does not happen often and also that light is the stuff of their orchestration. Truly, light reveals architecture. It makes the spaces viable but also appealing and sculptural. In Grafton’s installation I entered the brighter room before the dark one although I believe it was supposed to be the other way around. The volumes that have been inserted in the rooms both manipulate the light and also reveal themselves precisely because of it. Additionally it is evident that the space is not created by any partition placed on the floor but by the structures that hang from the ceiling. As Grafton mention themselves the rooftop was the site. I stayed quite a while in both rooms and found them very poetic. I thought it was interesting how people crossed the darker room and settled more in the brighter one. On the contrary I went through the bright one rather fast and sat down for a while longer in the dark room. When my eyes got used to the light I focused on the people and their reactions. How they preferred going in the middle of the space under the skylight that filtered the soft light from the ceiling.
Alvaro Siza’s installation is placed in the courtyard in front of the entrance of the exhibition. It is three yellow columns, one on the ground and the other two standing. The explanation he gave for them in the interview was that he wanted to signal the “beginning of the column”, the archetypical symbol of it. His installation is a rather minimal intervention, almost undetectable. I think that out of the architects that participated in the exhibition he is the oldest one with the most established architectural practice. His minimal aesthetic and the fact that he has no reason to strive for recognition could have been the reasons behind his choice. However it was not one of my favourites. Similar to his colleague’s Souto de Moura I found it too cerebral and detached. De Moura’s contribution was the cast-reproduction in concrete of two RA gallery doorways. The materiality of their details was stripped off and then they were placed right next to the original ones. Neither too spectacular nor with a really strong statement. At least not one that touched me.
Finally the last installation that I visited was by Kengo Kuma, an elegant geometric structure made of fragrant bamboo sticks. Its effect is very subtle and poetic. Even thought the structure itself cannot be entered by the visitor like most of the others but is more of a sculpture that one looks at, it manages to create space. In fact it evokes a very particular atmosphere through the way that it touches the senses. It smells beautifully and the dimmed lights at is base give a softness and a zen quietness to the structure. Weirdly most people who entered the gallery where it is placed felt the need to whisper. The one objection that I have is that this installation is not made by recognizable architectural parts and I do not see clearly the connection to architecture. However I liked it a lot, especially for its soft and gentle nature.
This exhibition is already a commercial success because of the appeal that it has on the visitors who feel they can identify with its exhibits. Still the whole experience made me wonder if architecture is somehow lost in the attempt to be seen as conceptual art. However I appreciated the accessibility of the exhibits opposed to most exhibitions that require a certain degree of education and often make people feel inadequate. As Yvonne Farrell from Grafton Architects mentions in her interview, the challenge for their practice was “how to reach people and heighten their awareness of what they see every day”. Most importantly though she said that everyone has the ability to recognize beauty when they see it.
The exhibition will be on until the 6th of April
Royal Academy’s page for Sensing Spaces here
Interviews with the architects that participate here
Diébédo Francis Kéré website here
Li Xiaodong’s website here
Pezo von Ellrichshausen website here
Grafton Architects website here
Alvaro Siza wikipedia page here
Eduardo Souto de Moura wikipedia page here
Kengo Kuma and Associates website here