The pedigree of the participating architects is impressive. The practices have been drawn from Burkina Faso, Portugal, Ireland, Chile, China and Japan, with the most notable participants being the Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese architects Eduardo Souto de Moura and Álvaro Siza. Yet it is an exhibition that is largely disinterested in reputation or, indeed, in the realities and practicalities of bricks and mortar buildings. Instead, the installations on display are inflated maquettes – sets designed to provoke reactions in their audience.
The exhibition has been overseen by the RA’s architecture curator Kate Goodwin. “This exhibition is not here to define architecture, it is here to help people explore it and understand how they experience design and architecture,” she says. “This encouraged me to collate a group of architects who would challenge it, and come at it from different angles.”
This sense of exploration is evident from the exhibition’s beginning. Entering the main hall of the RA you are greeted by Chilean-Argentinian practice Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s monumental Blue Pavilion. A towering structure of untreated pine and cast iron metal railings, it is shaped as a flat, open-topped deck atop four columns, its limited material palette serving to emphasise its weight.
Ascending the structure through a series of spiral staircases concealed within the columns, you enter a level of the gallery that is shrouded in the natural light that beams through the Academy’s skylights. Arriving on the deck, you are presented with a series of small cutaways in the pine that look onto the golden angels that line the moulding of the Royal Academy’s gallery spaces. That such a monolithic, unadorned structure culminates with a glimpse onto ornate, sensuous detailing is an intriguing twist.
The journey back to ground level is via a 60m ramp that snakes down the rear of the structure. Lighting is provided by slits in the wood and singular light bulbs installed at the end of each gangway. As light becomes scarce – the snaking ramp gradually becoming its own canopy – the walk down to ground level becomes foreboding.
It is a strong introduction to the exhibition and one that sets a tone – this is a show that is less about architectural form and more about how architecture can affects its inhabitants. “We wanted to talk about some of the fundamental elements of architecture such as light,” says Goodwin. “Each of the installations changes during the day and it’s a very different experience being here at 10 o’clock as it is to being here when it’s dark outside.”
This emphasis on light and space is particularly prevalent in the final installation, the work of Irish studio Grafton Architects. A collection of grey slabs descending from the ceiling, Grafton’s structure is capable of radical transformation as the amount of natural light admitted to the gallery fluctuates according to cloud cover and time of day. What initially reads as a beacon of natural light, can quickly become intimidating and sullen.
Works by Kengo Kuma and Lao Xiaodong explore similar territory, both examining how restrictions on vision can accentuate a person’s psychological and emotional experience of a structure. Kuma’s delicate bamboo structure is lit by a series of lights built into the roots of the bamboo, while the wood itself has been whittled down and formed into rounded bows. The installation spans over two rooms, with the first scented with hinoki and the second with tataki. Moving through the bamboo there is an illusion of irregularity and chaos. It is only when you exit that you can make sense of the perfectly formed tunnels that run throughout the installation.
A similar sense of disorientation is present in Xiaodong’s forest-like maze. The structure is made from hazel sticks, which rest on dim LED lights encased in acrylic panels. The lighting serves to emphasise the imperfections of the wood, prompting shadows to form on the walls as you move through the labrynth. It is a disorientating experience, but one subverted by the sudden appearance of a zen garden within the maze.
A more interactive work is owed to the Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. A honeycomb tunnel constructed from hundreds of polypropylene sheets, Kéré’s installation invites visitors to thread coloured drinking straws through the holes within the honeycomb. It’s a small gesture, but one that lends a lightness and whimsy to an otherwise cavernous and plain structure.
The exhibition’s two most celebrated names – Siza and Souto de Moura – are also its most underwhelming. Souto de Moura replicates doorways from the RA galleries in cast concrete, positioning them at acute angles to the doors that they mirror. It is a simple and elegant work, but one that becomes lost amidst the scale of the other contributions. The same can be said of Siza’s installation – a triptych of collapsing columns in the gallery’s courtyard – that seems too effortless to add much to the exhibition.
Yet occasional missteps should not detract from Sensing Spaces’ wider successes. The installations on display in the RA’s galleries are immersive and occasionally captivating, for the most part succeeding admirably on refocusing attention onto architecture’s sensory qualities. It is a refreshing change and one that should be applauded, particularly in the context of a mainstream, populist exhibition.
Presentation of architecture in contemporary culture is often simplified, with our awareness of a building all too frequently entirely mediated through glossy, contextless architecture photography printed in magazines or online. It is a trend that suits iconic forms and dramatic volumes, accentuating a building’s sculptural qualities at the cost of presenting a sense of what such a space might actually be like to inhabit. Equally, architecture exhibitions are typically concerned with the small scale, representing built environments through models, photography and film. While instructive, this again distances the viewer from experiencing what a given building is actually like.
By contrast, Sensing Spaces pushes in the opposite direction and in this sense it owes a debt to the 1:1 – Architects Build Small Spaces, a 2010 exhibition at the V&A in which architects created small, habitable structures around the museum. Yet Sensing Spaces’ installations are more abstract than 1:1’s. Neither straightforward works of architecture, nor constructions that wow in their presentation, they are instead gentle reminders of the effects that a structure can have on us. By bringing the phenomenological to the fore, Sensing Spaces makes an important contribution to the debate of how we should best assess and represent the architecture that surrounds us.