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Sensing Spaces at the RA

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Rory Olcayto introduces the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition

Seven architects from six countries have used Chilean pine, faux concrete, real concrete, plastic straws, columns, door frames and twigs to remodel the Beaux-Arts galleries. The opposite of image‑led, starchitect-driven design, this exhibition simply asks: how does architecture make you feel?

I am sitting in a gloomy gilt-edged cave with Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects. We peer out from the darkness, from the benches against the walls. An elderly woman walks by. ‘It’s amazing just watching people,’ Farrell says. ‘The energy it takes for people of that age to make this tour. It’s wonderful actually, isn’t it? It’s very humbling.’ Farrell shivers, then sighs. ‘That’s a real moment for me.’

Why was Farrell so moved? What did she see that made her shiver and sigh? Something simple: under the mass of floating slabs, grim like concrete - but how could it be concrete? - the elderly woman stops, leans on her walking stick, rests a little … then looks up to where a fuzzy cloud of light hovers overhead. A few moments pass, she gathers her thoughts, turns, and leaves the room. Is that all Farrell saw? Yes. But then I was moved too. Perhaps you had to be there. And that’s the whole point of the Sensing Spaces show.

The Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is a deliberate attempt to refocus attention on the sensory qualities of architecture, and explore how designed spaces make us feel: the sense of time passing, the haptic qualities, the odours, the light. For too long, curator Kate Goodwin says, the architectural experience has been dominated by image. As she writes in the catalogue’s preface of more typical architectural shows: ‘drawings, photographs and models - often distance us from what we might experience in direct contact with a building. Here, instead, we ask whether an exhibition could become the means to highlight not merely the functional or purely visual aspects of architecture but also the sensation of inhabiting built space.’

The architects picked to remodel the academy come from all over the world: Grafton Architects from Ireland; Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso and Berlin; Kengo Kuma from Japan; Li Xiaodong from China; Pezo von Ellrichshausen from Chile; and Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, both from Portugal. Goodwin says she chose them ‘because they distinctly engage with the way architecture might move beyond practical and functional concerns to address the human spirit’, and they have completely transformed Piccadilly’s famous Beaux-Arts rooms.

In one, four thick wooden columns supporting a huge viewing platform seems so thoroughly squeezed in, you’ll think your sense of perspective has been permanently screwed with. In another, the boundaries of space are marked not with a physical boundary, but by a cool tang of cypress. Another feels inspired by Stanley Kubrick and the underlit floors in that creepy sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (although parts of this room, like the stacks of branches which form a maze of walls, have the whiff of ‘boutique hotel’). Grafton has done two rooms: one dark, one light, and taken together they stole my show. The dark room in particular has a magnetic charm. It’s not really concrete floating there in space: it just feels that way.

When I wrote in August that this show might prove to be era-defining, it was because of what these architects stand for: a quiet kind of building, that most of Britain’s architectural thinkers, curators and critics, through their writings, exhibitions and other forms of cheer-leading, seek to promote at the expense of the prevailing starchitect culture (set in motion by that other academy show, the Deyan Sudjic-curated Foster Rogers Stirling in 1986). Still, if the argument against iconic landmark architecture is that it is too thoroughly defined by image, you may find the AJ’s extensive visual study of Sensing Spaces - by photographer Anthony Coleman - ironic. It’s a problem for the Royal Academy too, although one cheerfully embraced: as you enter the galleries, a sign orders you to tweet (@royalacademy #SensingSpaces), and photography is encouraged. It’s one of only two drawbacks. The other is the £14 price tag (sorry, RA, Siza ain’t Hockney) to this otherwise brilliant show.

Sensing Spaces is open until 6 April

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