Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

The quality of the architecture that surrounds us is something that affects us all, day in day out. Yet I normally find looking at architectural displays somewhat boring. Maybe I have a general inability to scale up in my mind little model buildings or plans (I blame it on not being given Lego as a child) but even glossy photo montages normally leave me cold. So,  it was all the more surprising to be completely riveted by Sensing Spaces, currently showing at the Royal Academy.

 The Royal Academy had asked six architects to give visitors a new perspective on architecture. The results were stunning and very different. Materials included the traditional: concrete and timber but also twigs, and even plastic.

The exhibition has no set pathway but, like many people, the first installation I encountered was Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen’s Blue Pavillion. Unlike most of the works, this one had a title but it seemed designed to confuse as it was not blue at all but constructed out of untreated pine board with a steel handrail. It looked solid and monumental and smelt like a timber yard, which is good by the way.

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Getting closer,  you noticed that there were stairways inside the huge pillars. These led up to a platform. What was interesting here, was that you could not see the hall from which you had come and, importantly,  the purity of the structure was not cluttered up by your presence peering over the top, so that visitors coming into the room had themselves to discover the pillars were not as solid as they appeared. Because you can not see the room itself  from above, you concentrate on the ceiling. This must be the best chance to see the very fine angels close up. In a way tha angels were incorporated into the whole.

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Eduardo Souto de Mouro used the RA’s doorways as a source of inspiration. At angles to the classical doorways were a pair of  arches cast from ultra high performance concrete reinforced with steel fibre, they were of the same general proportions but very different having an industrial feel but the two doorways enhanced each other and clearly demonstrated how well modern techniques can sit beside more classical architecture.

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Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s work was far more ethereal, comprising scented bamboo wands which were lit to create an elegant forest.  The result was was both calming and relaxing. I am not sure how much work I would get done in a Kuma designed house but, I wouldn’t care as I would be really laid back.

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In contrast the work by Li Xiaodong felt strangely disturbing. Made primarily out of hazel sticks it formed what appeared to be a labyrinth.

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In the film which you can see at the end of the exhibition there were shots of a library which Li Xiaodong  had created in China from the same materials.But there the effect of light through the hazel had appeared soothing, echoing the shape of books. There was something about the floor lighting in this version which made you uneasy. It was only in the centre when the labyrinth opened up revealing a room with a floor covered in pebbles, as though the beach had come inside, that the tension was released.

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Perhaps one of the most exciting works was by Diebedo Francis Kere. Here I was so pleased that I had come to the exhibition late in its run. The primary structure was made of honeycombed plastic panels but Kere had allowed visitors to collaborate with him by providing brightly coloured straws which could be inserted into the holes provided by the honeycomb. The result was the most extraordinary bower. Small children loved it of course, but few adults could resist adding to the construction. If you visited the exhibition when it first opened in January, do go back now and have another look if you didn’t, go before it closes and add a few straws of your own.

Sensing Spaces is showing at the Royal Academy until 6 April.


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