Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. New show transforms the stately ambience of the Royal Academy, By James Brewer
Lao Zi, the ancient Chinese philosopher, said: “What is important is what is contained, not the container.” He was writing seven centuries before the invention of the modern shipping container, but his influence lives on (he was the one who wrote “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”).
His container maxim is a guiding light for one of the seven architectural practices from different countries who contribute to the latest Royal Academy exhibition, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and perhaps sub-consciously for all the participants.
This amazing show sees the main galleries — which only a short time ago hosted relatively conventional painting exhibitions including Australian art and Édouard Manet – taken over by huge purpose-built architectural installations.
Architects, unlike conventional artists, usually work to rigid commissions rather than pure inspiration, so the seven practices revelled in being given a free hand, subject to space constraints, by the Royal Academy. The distinguished institution is rarely recognised by the public as being a temple to architecture as much as to fine art, but that this is so is underlined by the founding member of the academy in 1768 having been an architect, Sir William Chambers.
The space constraints at the London gallery were only its walls, and the place resembled a building site for three weeks as a construction firm hammered away to get the monumental projects erected. It was what RA secretary and chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith called “a heroic enterprise.”
There is not a plan, model, photo or diagram in sight: it is all about visible structures, or more accurately, in line with Lao Zi’s formula, their atmosphere. The brief was to create site-specific installations “to immerse visitors in a multi-sensory experience.” For many people this will be a new encounter with the concept of architecture, to see how, as the RA expresses it, “vision, touch, sound and memory play a role in our perceptions of space, proportion, materials and light.” The question is posed: “When and how does architecture meet more than our basic practical and functional needs?”
Visitors enter the gallery’s Octoganal Room, from where there is no set route through the Grade II* listed galleries. From that point, we discover “what’s in the box.”
Turning to the left, one comes across the most visually striking construction, an 8 metre tall pinewood structure prefabricated in Chile before being shipped in modules to London. Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen describe the work, which almost touches the ceiling, as a small room elevated on four massive columns. There are four spiral stairwells and a ramp (useful for disabled visitors) to climb to the top, from where one comes face to face with the angels – the gilded ornamentation of the otherwise inaccessible ceiling vault of the 1860-built gallery. The structure is held together by 27, 185 screws and 72, 800 nails.
Li Xiaodong, who cites Lao Zi on the container principle, in fact does create a certain sense of containment with his 21, 120-piece hazel twig labyrinth which can evoke a sense of being lost in a forest. He is professor of history and theory at Tsinghua University School of Architecture and has a small practice atelier. His work includes the Bridge School, Xiashi, China, which won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010.
In an innovative olfactory experience, Kengo Kuma from Japan has darkened two galleries and clamped to the floor delicate 4 mm diameter flexible sticks of bamboo. Each piece was impregnated with the scent of Japanese Cyprus or tatami. It illustrates his skill in using the minimum of resources to maximum effect.
The contribution of Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects, Ireland, is above our heads. They suspend huge panels from the roof of two rooms, to allow daylight and artificial light to create effects (all of the galleries are top-lit, and the show becomes “something else” at night). The Irish duo say: “Our interest is to engage the public: it’s about imagination and memory, because if you can touch those chords you create something very powerful.”
Diébédo Francis Kéré, who has a Berlin-based practice, and has built schools and community buildings in Burkina Faso and across West Africa, has for the exhibition built a curved plastic tunnel of 1, 867 honeycomb panels, through which visitors are invited to thread a few of the available 550, 000 blue, green yellow and orange straws (“Take Care of other Visitors When Inserting Straws”). The tunnel links two galleries.
Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose mentor and collaborator Álvaro Siza has a column installation outside in the courtyard, brings reinforced concrete(one tonne of it!) to the party with two replica door cases of the academy. Eduardo Souto de Moura is acclaimed for projects including the Paula Rêgo Museum, Cascais, and Braga Stadium, both in Portugal.
Álvaro Siza’s work was associated with the new era in Portugal following the country’s revolution. He received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1992, considered the highest distinction in its field.
Curator Kate Goodwin said: “Architecture is the ever-present background to our lives and we often don’t recognise the impact it has. We have challenged the architects to create an experience which excites the senses and sparks the imagination. Their work is rooted in the place it comes from. Their materials are local.”
Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy, London, until April 6 2014