Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy

-This exhibition is now closed-

Installation by Kengo Kuma. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Installation by Kengo Kuma.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy is a new exhibition of installations by seven architects from around the globe, invited by the RA to create structures that draw attention not only to the visual and functional aspects of architecture but also to the ways in which built environments affect all our senses and influence human behaviour on emotional and subconscious levels

The results are beautiful and evocative. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s delicate bamboo structures are concerned with the capacity of even the most fragile forms to delimit space and elicit a subconscious response that stands in contrast to physical reality. The first of Kuma’s two installations is a dark gallery with, at its centre, a series of thin bamboo rods arranged in a matrix of loosely-connected diamond shapes. Gently lit from below, the ethereal bamboo construct resembles flames, particularly in so far as visitors can see through the structure while it nonetheless remains a barrier to movement between one side of the gallery and the other. In Kuma’s second room, a similar bamboo matrix has been installed along the walls of the gallery, with the visitor now located in the core of what feels like a safe, surreal cocoon. Central to Kuma’s work is the concept of the void – the empty space between physical objects – and in his installations at the Royal Academy he plays with minimal materials to create something that is simultaneously ‘solid’ on a conceptual level and yet has no real physical presence at all. By delimiting empty space, the bamboo structures give the void an imaginary solid quality that influences visitors’ instinctive movements and emotional reactions. In both of Kuma’s galleries, the visitor has a sensory reaction to the materials that is at odds with physical reality.

Installation by Grafton Architects. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Installation by Grafton Architects.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara, founders of the Irish firm Grafton Architects, are also concerned with the importance of intangible elements to our experience of built environments, focusing on the impact of light.  Their two galleries in this exhibition – one dark space and one bright space – manipulate natural and artificial light to powerful effect. The ‘dark’ room features a grey, concrete geometric structure running from head height up to the gallery ceiling, reflecting soft light down from above. The room is like an ultra-modern chapel and elicits an almost spiritual sense of calm and reassurance. The Grafton Architects’ second room, their ‘bright’ space, forces intense light down to human level via reflective white panels along the ceiling. The movement from the dark room to the bright room is jarring, like a sudden awakening, which is evidence in favour of Farrell and McNamara’s theory that light and our sense of connection to the outside world are fundamental to our experience of interior spaces. If the dark room is a place for quiet introspection, the bright room is a place for noise and action.

Installation (Blue Pavilion) by Pezo von Ellrichshausen.  Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Installation (Blue Pavilion) by Pezo von Ellrichshausen.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Other architects on show manipulate scale to show how our interactions and observations are tempered by habit. Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen’s Blue Pavilion not only has a powerful visual impact in its own right but is also essentially a viewing deck that visitors can climb to see the beautiful original ceiling decorations of the gallery in all their glory. These decorations are visible from ground level, but it takes this shift in height to focus our attention away from what is on show at eye-level to the beauty of the room itself. Similarly, Diébédo Francis Kéré’s honeycomb-plastic tunnel, which visitors are welcome to decorate with the colourful straws provided, forces visitors into close proximity as they pass from one side of the tunnel to the next. For Kéré, buildings are not isolated objects, but rather places dedicated to movement and interaction.

Installation by Diébédo Francis Kéré.  Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

Installation by Diébédo Francis Kéré.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.

The installations on show may be very different from each other in terms of materials and style, but what links them all is a sense that architecture today should be practised in a holistic way, giving adequate priority to all human requirements of a built space, be they practical, aesthetic or emotional.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is open until 6 April.

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