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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.

sensing-spaces1What 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.

sensing-spaces2Diébédo 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.

Diébédo Francis Kéré installation. Find Kere Architecture website here

Diébédo Francis Kéré installation. Find Kere Architecture website here

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.

Li Xiaodong Atelier installation. Find their website here

Li Xiaodong Atelier installation. Find their website here

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.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. Find their website here

Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. Find their website here

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.

Grafton Architects. Find their website here

Grafton Architects. Find their website here

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.

Top photos installation by Alvaro Siza / Bottom pictures installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura

Top photos installation by Alvaro Siza / Bottom pictures installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura

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.

Kengo Kuma & Associates. Find them here

Kengo Kuma & Associates. Find them here

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

Diébédo Francis Kéré website here

Li Xiaodong’s website here

Pezo von Ellrichshausen website here

Grafton Architects website here

Alvaro Siza website here

Eduardo Souto de Moura wikipedia page here

Kengo Kuma and Associates website here

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Nicholas Hawksmoor has always been UK architecture’s underdog. Having worked at the side of Christopher Wren for a number of years on projects as important as St. Paul’s cathedral and Greenwich hospital, initially he was rather known for that, than for the few but really important buildings he designed on his own. Looking at Christ Church Spitalfields or St. George in the East one realises that his design idiom was as unique as to pronounce his contribution to English baroque pivotal. Regardless of the fact that currently he is celebrated as an architectural genius, he acquired his fame throughout modernity because his churches were associated with dark urban legends to the point he was mentioned as the devil-architect. This is partly because of the common knowledge that he was a free-mason. However Wren was as well but nothing of the sort was ever mentioned about him. Why is it then that Hawksmoor became the inspiration for the dark graphic novel ‘From Hell’ which depicts Jack the Ripper’s famous killings, or Ian Sinclair’s poem Lud Heat (1975) where his churches’ placement within the city’s fabric was supposed to have a cryptic meaning?

Left photo: Painting of Christ Church Spitalfields by anonymous artist around 1875/Middle photo: P.32 of Alan Moor and Eddie Cambell’s ‘From Hell’ Graphic novel (1999)/Right photo: panel from the exhibition

In the exhibition of Hawksmoor’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts, these mystic stories were mentioned next to copies of some of the architect’s original drawings and a few videos where contemporary architects and theorists such as Ptolemy Dean speak of Hawksmoor’s architecture with great enthusiasm. Regardless of the exhibition’s small size, the information provided was well rounded and comprised an interesting and concise whole.

First photo: Royal Academy of Arts picture of St. George Bloomsbury/ Second photo: Celia Paul’s 2010 painting of St. George Bloomsbury/Third photo: panel from the exhibition/Fourth photo: Office of Sir John Soan RA St.George Bloomsbury produced to accompany Royal Academy Lecture IV 1807

Having examined all the ‘evidence’ provided I still could not make up my mind on why it took centuries for Hawksmoor to acquire his proper position in the architectural ‘hall of fame’. My guess would be that he was so much more ahead of his time that he was literally not understood in order to be celebrated by his contemporaries or even the next generations. There is a halo of mystery and wonder around any artist that is as charismatic. In Hawksmoor’s case it even lead to attributing to him supernatural aspirations and powers. Beyond doubt, being exquisitely talented as he was was already supernatural.

Left photo: Nicholas Hawksmoor Greenwich Central Dome/ Middle photo: Charles E. Hardaker’s 1966 painting of St. Mary Woolworth in the City of London called ‘Hawksmoor Baroque’/ Royal Academy Hawksmoor exhibition May 2012

Read more about Hawksmoor here

Read Steve Rose’s 2006 Guardian article about Hawksmoor here

Scroll down to the ‘ Devil’s Architect’ part of the Fortean Times article called City of Symbols.  link here

The beginning of 20th century was undoubtedly one of the most exciting eras in the history of art and architecture. On a practical level, technological inventions as far as materials and construction methods were concerned, made possible the emergence of new forms and scales. However, the influence of breakthroughs in communication and transportation had the most dramatic effect in broadening humanity’s perception and experience. Especially in Russia, or rather CCCP at the time, this wide horizon of possibilities seemed truly infinite as it was ignited by the fiery promises of revolution.

all photos by Richard Pare

Forms, compositions, ideas and manifestos of Russian Constructivism and Suprematism set solid foundations for Bauhaus, De Stijl, Art Deco and Modernism to develop upon. The blooming of the arts in Russia was so intense that most of the products of that era still strike us with their innovativeness and manage to stay forever contemporary. Both art and architecture equally expressed and inspired the huge political changes that the country underwent and this is very eloquently depicted in the ‘Building the Revolution’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

The choice of works from Popova, Malevich, Klutsis and many others is quite successful in distilling the essence of art’s influence on the revolution and also in displaying the revolution that occurred within visual arts during that time.

The architectural exhibit is presented in four major categories: State and communication, Industry, Housing and Education and health. These categories round eloquently all areas of public life and the way that architecture was used as propaganda to promote the new-born socialism.

All buildings are portrayed beautifully through the juxtaposition of contemporary pictures by the uniquely talented Richard Pare, and old photographs taken from former CCCP’s Academy of Architecture archives. Age and weathering imprinted on buildings are in the foreground. This is a very refreshing choice in a time when mainly the polished and new are celebrated. The contradiction of old photographs with young buildings and new photographs of old buildings is where the simple beauty of this exhibition lies and from where the visitor draws the most interesting conclusions.

all photos by Richard Pare


Entering Royal Academy of Art’s courtyard, Jeremy Dixon’s model of Tatlin’s tower dominates the space. The rest of the exhibition, modest in size and while having its importance diminished by its placement in front of the restaurant’s entrance, still succeeds to convey a fairly accurate sense of the original structure

Tatlin’s propaganda tower though it was never actually constructed in the size it was intended to (bigger than the Eiffel Tower), still managed to acquire an indisputable position in universal architectural history. Attempting to discover reasons for that, one cannot but acknowledge that this is a truly inspired sculptural form. One of its main elements, its spiralling beam which unfolds upwards, is supported by a number of rectangular frames most of which do not actually reach the ground but are based on a series of arcs. Curves and right angles are conflicting geometries which intertwine into a unique visual paradox that initially aimed to symbolize the high aspirations of the Russian socialist party.

Perhaps this structure became so famous because it managed to combine contradictory forms in a wonderfully delicate balance. Or was it rather because it described so eloquently an era of great expectations that failed to achieve its goals? It is much more than its form that renders this structure so successful. It is a snapshot of a historical chimaera interpreted and assembled by architectural parts at its best.

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