Monumental Constructions Challenge Spatial Perceptions In New RA Architecture Exhibition

Sensing Spaces which opened on 25th January at the Royal Academy in London employs a curatorial approach that is both radical and innovative. The traditional exhibition space is reinvented to create an immersive multi-sensorial experience.

How does oneself engage with the space one inhabits? The exhibition promotes the bodily experience of space and architecture. To this event seven international architects were invited to design and build up site-specific installations. Grafton architects (Ireland), Diebedo Francis Kérè (Burkina Faso and Germany), Kengo Kuma (Japan), Li Xiadong (China), Edouardo Souto de Moura (Portugal), Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile) and Alvaro Siza were given full permission to reinvent the galleries.

The resulting monumental constructions alter our spatial perception as we wander through the show.  Each architectural entity is unparalleled. However the overall impression is that of a consistent dialogue between all parts. All aim to stimulate our spatial perception trough vision, movement, touch, and smell.

In the exploration of this particular group of works the body of the viewer will be addressed as an expressive space, undergoing feelings of comfort and discomfort. Some phenomenological notions come at stake. The exhibition guideline is overtly participative. Visitors are encouraged to engage with the installations. Thereby the show aims to demonstrate the interdependence of architecture and people who inhabit it.

Processing from one room to the other is playful. The gigantic wooden installation by Pezo Ellrichshausen in the first room is impressive. From the outside it looks defensive and hostile. But, narrow spiral staircases invite people to climb to the top. The ascension inside the building has an intimate character. At the upper level one enjoys an amazing view of the gallery from different angles.  A gentle sloped ramp leads downstairs again. The interplay between outside and inside, publicity versus privacy, repeats itself when going down.

In another room, Li Xiadong’s walkway recalls rules of harmony as applied in Asian gardens. The walls are made of wooden branches; the floor gives out white light. The visitor evolves in a maze punctuated by cozy parlors and mirrors. Variation in texture and in light occurs. The journey balances the body and the mind.

Diédébo Francis Kéré’s tunnel made of connected plastic honeycomb panel is a participative structure. Initially the structure is left blank. But people visiting the exhibition will daily reshape it as they are invited to insert some of the 550,000 colored plastic straws awaiting installation into the structure. Eventually, the straws will fill the void of the tunnel; obstructing the passage to the next room.

Taking architecture as an object in itself and bring it, as an object, into an enclosed gallery space is an idea never seen before in the United Kingdom. So far, the conventional way of showing architecture in museums has always been to display drawings or miniature reconstructions. To emphasize the experience of being into a certain space rather than to appreciate it from an external standpoint is difficult as it is not a tangible idea. In addition, the fact to bring architecture alive into a museum challenges traditional definitions of visual art categories.

Along the show I have been asking myself if the digital age has aliened us from our sensitive instinct. Would the fragmentation of information due to new IT have impacted our sense of body? The daily amount of external commercial stimuli we are exposed to could have cut us away from our inner perceptions. If so, ‘Sensing spaces’ is a show that establishes a virgin space where one can reconnect with the reaction of its body in time and space.

Words: Amélie Timmermans Photo: Pezo Ellrichshausen courtesy RA © 2014

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined Royal Academy 25 January-6 April 2014


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