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Sensing Spaces: Technical insight

Unless you choose to lock antlers with Sensing Spaces’ anti-esoteric objectives, it might seem paradoxical to dwell on its exhibitors’ use of technology

The whole ethos of the show entails stripping away the measured constructs of the architectural profession which get in the way of people’s visceral experience of its output, not least because the laity itself can’t help latching on to vulgar and simplistic facsimiles of this paraphernalia. Goodbye orthographic projections, so long golden sections and, as Royal Academy secretary and chief executive Charles Saumarez Smithsuggested at the opening, to architecture as problem solving, adiós. So why not get shot of surplus technology as well? Simply pick up your pen and draw.

Sensing Spaces’ curatorial direction seems to favour the apparently simple Minimalism dear to the more avant-garde reaches of the art world. So leaving out timescales, budgets and the limitations of Burlington House’s building fabric, it offered limited scope for pioneering technology, prototyping and audacious engineering, as its guest list testifies. ‘Good architecture is somehow invisible,’ says Sofia von Ellrichshausen of Pezo von Ellrichshausen, quoted on curator Kate Goodwin’s blog. And by implication, ditto technology.

So does that mean technology was relegated to solving boring problems involving safety and stability? Well, solving these problems doesn’t have to be boring. The academy didn’t want policed access to Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s platform overlooking the largest gallery space, explains its structural engineer, AKT II technical director Ed Moseley. This meant the installation’s untreated pine stair towers had to be man enough to bear heavy live loads, and be carefully aligned with the Victorian arches supporting the gallery floor. Li Xiaodong’s labyrinth was conceived with supporting steelwork, but when this was designed out, leaving a more economical and easily adjusted assemblage of plywood and coppiced hazel furniture, its stability had to be empirically tested with weights.

And who with any construction experience ever said what looks simple is easy to build? Kengo Kuma’s 4mm-diameter bamboo diagrids, like 3D Flamboyant Gothic tracery, somehow manage to invert the logic of a catenary structure and stand up. Hardly a morning’s work. As with many of the exhibits, assembly followed a phase of obsessive quality control. The bamboo was matured for three to four years, then worked into 4mm strips and impregnated with fragrance before being vacuum packed and shipped from Kyoto. Most of the installations wouldn’t have been possible without wonder materials like the steel fibre-reinforced concrete of Eduardo Souto de Moura’s freestanding portals, only 30-60mm thick, or wonder techniques like the digital technology used to model the behaviour of Diébédo Francis Kéré and Grafton Architects’ pesky creations. There’s a world of technology behind the subtlety and refinement of these installations.

Along with AKT II, Kéré became particularly engrossed with the technical challenges of his installation, like a man who consciously embraced the experience of not knowing what he was walking into. He wanted to build his tunnel out of 60mm perforated composite polypropylene panels bolted together as a series of arched shells. But nothing like this had been attempted before, and it didn’t work. ‘The arches were acting as if they were on rollerskates,’ says Goodwin. The simple answer was to connect their footings to boarding which forms the floor of the tunnel, and therefore acts as a tube. But coiled sheets of bolt-connected panels were too flimsy. Instead, T-shaped configurations of panels were arched across the space to form a shell, using digital modelling scripts developed for the project to set out the structure.

Grafton Architects wanted to suspend its installations from the existing overhead structure but, with insufficient survey information, AKT II had to work empirically as the 3.5 tonne PVA-surfaced assemblages of wood, steel and calico were carefully hoisted up. Digital modelling of the surface’s behaviour accelerated the process and, fortunately, fears they might have to be supported from the floor proved unfounded.

An architecture which focuses on the impressions of those who experience it, rather than its own internal logic, is potentially over-preoccupied with illusion and closer to stage scenery, although one shouldn’t read too much into the name of the installation fabricator, MDM Props. This illusory world is most heightened in Kuma’s installations, where the bamboo seems to channel electrical energy across the spaces like forks of lightning. The physicality of Souto de Moura’s is a nice counterweight to this and some of the show’s more ad hoc dei ex machina. Conscious that the elusive qualities of space are defined by tangible objects like windows and doors, he combined ultra high-performance, finite-elements analysed concrete with precise mahogany moulds to vividly replicate the rotated casts of the existing doorways with hyper-realistically accurate reliefs projecting as little as 0.2mm.

Rather than the province of an initiated class of architect-conspirateurs, detail is the essence of visceral architectural experience; and detail thrives not only on patient craftsmanship, but also on swift technological progress.

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