Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sensing Spaces

Grafton Architects, part of Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, curated by Kate Goodwin at the Royal Academy in London, runs until 6 April and is an ambitious exploration not just of contemporary international architecture but of how architecture can be exhibited. Taking the form of a series of site-specific responses to the Royal Academy's lush Beaux Arts interiors by seven architectural practices from around the world (including Grafton Architects from Ireland, pictured above and Álvaro Siza Vieira and Eduardo Souto de Moura from Portugal), the exhibition brings a slice of an international biennale or triennale to one of London's major art galleries.

Kengo Kuma, part of Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

Pictured above is one of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma's installations, taking whittled bamboo and binding it together to create a delicate and undulating form, lit from below and scented with Japanese cypress and tatami. His is a quiet and meditative space, and viewing the bamboo from different angles brings a change from disarray to clarity. Another Oriental-inspired installation is a zen garden within a maze of bamboo by Chinese architect Li Xiaodong, while African architect Diebedo Francis Kere has created a cave of perforated plastic sheets, through which visitors are invited to thread brightly-coloured straws, so the sight you'll be greeted with if you visit now will be very different from when the exhibition first opened. Before you enter and when you leave the exhibition venue you will see Alvaro Siza Vieira's contribution: three yellow columns in various stages of construction (or maybe destruction, if you're the glass half empty type), and perhaps the most momentous of the works is Chilean architects Pezo von Ellrichshausen's big, blunt wooden construction (below) which elevates you to the upper reaches of the gallery, giving you a close-up glimpse of the ornate coving of the room housing the construction.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen, part of Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

The most impressive installation within Sensing Spaces - though you might think I'm biased - is the shaping of light and dark by Grafton Architects, pictured at the top. While it's a clever trick made out of MDF, Grafton have taken a gallery space within the RA and crated a void of light seemingly reaching down through heavy concrete forms above you. In other gallery spaces, Eduardo Souto de Moura uses actual concrete (high-performance stuff, no less) to cast two of the Royal Academy's door frames, one pictured below. To me these are an interesting play on concrete's typical use - stripped back, exposed, unadorned - used instead to bring your attention, once again, to the intricate detailing found in the RA.

Eduardo Souto de Moura, part of Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

While Sensing Spaces exhibits work by an interesting range of architects working all over the world at different stages of their careers, the point of the exhibition goes beyond that. Very much borne out of the question of how to exhibit architecture, Sensing Spaces takes a massive step away from the architectural exhibitions often shown in our galleries and museums, presenting us with models, drawings and photographs of extant buildings located elsewhere, buildings that once were or buildings that could be. Instead, this exhibition creates new spaces for us to enjoy, some of which enable us to view the exhibition space itself in a new light. While this mode of exhibiting isn't new to those who have visited the Venice Architecture Biennale, Lisbon Architecture Triennale or other major international architectural exhibitions, this is very new to the audience frequenting the RA and other open-all-year galleries and museums.

It's received slight criticism from the Guardian for taking the function out of architecture and therefore creating a mere 'simulation' of what architecture really is. While this is true - these spaces aren't functional in the sense that an actual building (usually) is - is this something we can ever reconcile when we exhibit rather than visit architecture? Is there another, truly authentic way to express what architecture is, does or could be beyond models, drawings or big, bold installations such as we see here? Will we ever find a way to experience architecture without experiencing buildings? Sensing Spaces has been met mostly with glowing praise and I think it's warranted. Architecture is one of my favourite artforms and exhibitions like this could win over many others. This is an incredibly enjoyable exhibition and while it might not express the functional aspect of architecture fully, it certainly brings home architecture's artistry and its ability - at its best - to excite, inspire and move us.

Images via 1 | 2 & 3 | 4