Sensing Spaces is a bold new exhibition at the Royal Academy which challenges visitors to think about architecture in a way different to the norm. Seven exhibits from architects based in six different countries use all of our senses to provide radically different experiences. I visited last Friday for the RA Late show which added music, visual performances, tactile experiences and taste to the exhibition. That, and booze.
The first exhibit I came across was a monumental wooden structure created by Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo, which consisted of four sets of stairs that led to a viewing platform. It was reminiscent of a grown-up treehouse. The wood had an appealing smell and texture, and I enjoyed hearing the resonance of high heels clomping above. However, the structure’s real achievement was opening up the ceiling view to closer inspection. I relished the opportunity to see the golden angels of the Beaux Arts rooms up close in all their splendour.
Kengo Kuma’s delicate bamboo sculptures created meditative spaces. The feeling of calm was enhanced by the subtle fragrances of hinoki and tatami, and by the underlighting which imbued them with an ethereal quality as if we were viewing another place entirely.
This feeling was also present in Li Xiaodong’s space in the opposite corner of the gallery. The exhibit was filled with contrasts. Claustrophobic, maze-like corridors lead to a mirrored zen garden which creates an illusion of infinite space. The walls were constructed from branches, confusing inside and outside. Brightly lit floors took nothing away from the intense darkness.
Standing out against all this natural material was Francis Diébédo Kéré’s big white plastic tunnel and furniture. The material was honeycombed so that visitors could refashion it using long multi-coloured drinking straws. This allowed for visitors to get creative with the installation though individual creativity was subsumed within the mass of straws. It was a reminder that we’re all creatives now.
The RA Late event added plenty of extras to proceedings. There were musicians, lightshows, a circus act, clay meditation. Chocolate marble, pebbles and a biscuit-crumb sandcastle added the taste dimension. One room was filled with Lego. It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of Lego that some people remained there all evening building houses despite there being so much else to experience.
Indie band Portico performed a live set within a space created by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Faux-concrete walls were suspended from the ceiling, dividing the room into dark and light. It was a surprisingly apt setting for Portico’s ambient soundscapes.
Perhaps the best of the Late additions was Rebecca Louise Law’s White Tulips. Easy to miss, on its own in the Fine Rooms, the titular white flowers were hung from the ceiling. Challenging our standard notions, it reminded us that like these flowers, architecture is ephemeral and even the most solid of structures will one day collapse.
Sensing Spaces is at the Royal Academy until April 6.