Exhibition Review: Sensing Spaces at London's Royal Academy of Arts
"The decisions we make are not all conscious," reflects Álvaro Siza, one of seven architects invited by curator Kate Goodwin to design and install an immersive installation within the galleries of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. “What we do depends much on our experiences.” It is these subconscious memories and instinctive reactions to light, material, and space that visitors to Sensing Spaces are invited to experience first hand.
The installations, with varying degrees of success, go beyond the functional and visual to explore the physical sensation of inhabiting architecture, while also providing insight into the background and sensibilities of each practice.
Standing in the octagonal Central Hall of the Academy’s Main Galleries, visitors are invited to make their own path through the space. Through the doorway to the left, an angular viewing platform supported by four megalithic, cylindrical pillars draws them in. Designed by young Chilean practice Pezo von Ellrichshausen, the pine board structure is fortress-like, evoking the urge to explore: walk up a zigzagging ramp or ascend one of the spiral staircases that wind up the interior of each pillar to access a square viewing deck. From this lofty height, the structure’s high walls block the view below, instead drawing attention to the gallery’s Neoclassical, gilded ceiling and providing a unique opportunity to see its opulence in detail.
Next door, Berlin-based, African-born architect Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s also encourages a childlike feeling of freedom with a polypropylene archway into which visitors are encouraged to push plastic straws. After two months of interaction, the result is a structure with an extremely stubbly, multicolored skin that both adults and children feel compelled to touch and play with. Sucking visitors in through its low but cavernous entranceway, the textured tunnel narrows in the middle before opening up and ejecting them from the other side—what can be a bright, but rather brief, experience on a crowded day.
Taking a more serious tone, Chinese architect Li Xaodong has created a maze-like series of passageways lined with raw hazel sticks. Lit by LED floor panels, visitors navigate their way through the narrow corridor to a calming Zen garden complete with a pebble floor and a mirrored wall that heightens the sense of entering a wide-open space.
Equally immersive is Kengo Kuma’s atmospheric bamboo installation. Set across two dimly lit spaces, he whittled bamboo sticks into a delicate lattice structure and infused them with the scent of Hinoki wood and Tatami mats—aromas that are evocative of the traditional Japanese houses that Kuma grew up in and, he admits, are still capable of sending him into a deep sleep.
In contrast, Irish practice Grafton Architects has used the gallery’s soaring roof to explore the human attraction to light cycles. Working across two gallery spaces—one dark and one light—the architects have installed a series of sculptural, suspended volumes to capture and sculpt daylight that filters into the gallery. In the darker, larger space, light enters through an opening in a monolithic structure that has been inserted into the roof. Subtle variations in light and shadow play across its clean, angular surfaces, causing visitors to stop and marvel. Through the gloom, an archway of bright light beckons you into a smaller, dazzlingly bright gallery where a series of white plaster slats hang across the ceiling, reflecting and diffusing the light around the room.
The subtlest of interventions come courtesy of Portuguese Pritzker Prize-winners Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, the latter of whom has made a cast concrete replica of two of the gallery’s ornate marble archways. Cast in reinforced concrete using high precision joinery molds, the Brutalist-style replicas are placed perpendicular to their originals, inviting the observer to compare and contrast. Also inspired by the Academy’s architecture, Siza has installed three yellow concrete columns in the gallery’s exterior courtyard: one complete, one with a missing capital, and one on its side as if toppled over, with its capital lying close by. It's a peculiar sight in such a formal setting, but Siza has fulfilled the exhibition’s ultimate goal: to bring the experiential qualities of architecture to the fore.