Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (Royal Academy of Arts)

Sensingspaces1“Allowing room for the visitor’s imagination is essential if a space is to become a satisfying physical experience.” These are the words of Li Xiaodong, one of seven architects who have been invited to transform the neoclassical galleries of the Royal Academy for their freshest exhibition, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Xiaodong’s suggestion captures the spirit of the exhibition, which sets out to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery space.

The exhibition is carefully divided yet without any imposed sequence, each architect having been allocated one or two rooms. Many structures are visually and conceptually striking, such as Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Blue, an imposing pine wood construction occupying half of Room 2 in which visitors are invited to enter. In Room 6, the Ireland-based Grafton Architects call attention to the dramatic effects of roof light with their suspended plaster panels. Elsewhere, the Burkinabe Diébédo Francis Kéré created a stunning tunnel from honeycomb plastic linking two of the rooms, transformed by the visitors’ gradual addition of coloured plastic straws. Surely, the works in this exhibition succeed in heightening our awareness of the sensory realm of architecture. Be it through visually destabilizing environments, tactilely appealing surfaces, or even the smell of materials, the works underscore the ways in which architecture may have a direct impact on our bodily and mental states.

One of my concerns is that the exhibition is rather under-curated. The galleries display only basic factual information about the work they contain. And the iPads at the entrance of the exhibition, through which one will essentially learn about the production processes of the structures, do not offer much more. We learn little about how the architects have concretely sought “to address the human spirit,” and the way they have used “their appreciation of history to create buildings that acknowledge the past but are also highly meaningful within the present” remains completely speculative for the viewers.

I also wonder whether Sensing Spaces will have the long-lasting impact it hopes for. The statement of curator Kate Goodwin begins with a reflection on the ignored ubiquity of architecture in our daily activities, acknowledging how it very often is only the background to our lives. “Working, sleeping or playing,” she writes, “mostly take place within, and interact with, architecture.” The structures are quite spectacular in themselves, but precisely for this reason one is unlikely to engage differently with ordinary, everyday architectural spaces. The question remains open as to how these everyday spaces can become more rewarding, more satisfying.

Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until the 6th April 2014.