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Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

March 3, 2014

Grafton Architects

Grafton Architects installation at the RA’s Sensing Spaces exhibition

There have been many reviews praising the Royal Academy’s innovative Sensing Spaces exhibition. Hugh Pearman in the RIBA Journal suggests “it is quite possibly the bravest exhibition the Royal Academy has ever staged”. Ellis Woodman in BdOnline calls it “a brave and engaging show”.  And Rory Olcayto in the Architects’ Journal says the exhibition is the “opposite of image‑led, starchitect-driven design”, explaining that “this exhibition simply asks: how does architecture make you feel?”

Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation at the RA’s Sensing Spaces exhibition

And yet Olcayto also highlights the exhibition’s contradictions: “Still, if the argument against iconic landmark architecture is that it is too thoroughly defined by image … as you enter the galleries, a sign orders you to tweet (@royalacademy #SensingSpaces), and photography is encouraged”.
Diebedo Francis Kere

Diebedo Francis Kere installation at the RA’s Sensing
Spaces exhibition

And, for me, the exhibition is more successful at creating  memorable images than sensual experiences (especially if one goes there with a cold and hence loses the sense of smell, as I did). This is an exhibition designed with the networked, smartphone generation in mind, where experiences  are captured and shared  instantly on social media: Twitter, Instagram, Reddit,  Pinterest, Digg, Facebook and more.

Grafton Architects

Grafton Architects installation at the RA’s Sensing Spaces exhibition

But this is not to trivialise the exhibition. Take the two installations by Irish firm Grafton Architects. One of these in particular evokes the work of American architect Louis Kahn (no coincidence that Grafton’s directors held the Louis Kahn Chair at Yale). In this room, there is no touching or climbing through the structures, no subtle Proustian smells to conjure up moods, no sticking drinking straws into plastic honeycombs (as in some of the other exhibits). Here instead architecture is experienced as the atmosphere and mood created by the magical play of light and dark over surfaces.

Eduardo Souto de Moura

Eduardo Souto de Moura installation at the RA’s Sensing Spaces exhibition

Architecture exhibitions are problematic to stage. Unlike painting or sculpture shows, the actual exhibit is seldom there, represented instead by plans, photos, models and (often too much) text. Sensing Spaces attempts to do something different – to reinvent the architectural exhibition by both bringing architecture into the gallery and appealing  to all our senses. And although I left the gallery thinking these structures seem more like art than architecture, I think they do, to quote from the gallery guide, “recalibrate visitors’ awareness of spaces beyond the gallery walls.”

* Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy, London until 6 April 2014

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From → Architecture, Art

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