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Architecture Reimagined

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The Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces show promises to be a once-in-a-generation event, says Rory Olcayto

Once in a generation, an institution mounts an art show that comes to be seen as an era-defining event. The most famous is probably the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York, which introduced Americans to European movements like Cubism and Futurism and artists like Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse. It would change the course of American art, which until then had been dominated by realism.

In much the same way, Damien Hirst’s Freeze exhibition, which took place in an empty London Port authority building in Surrey Docks in 1988 and showcased work by Hirst and others including Michael Landy, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas, has been hailed as the moment that the Young British Artists ‘movement’ was born.

The influence of Hirst’s show can be seen in events such as Peckham’s Bold Tendencies, the summer-long sculpture exhibition housed in a multi-storey car park, while London’s popularity as a centre of art production is largely built on the culture inspired by Freeze.

In architectural circles, two shows in (fairly) recent times have been hailed as seminal. One is Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley’s Deconstructivist Architecture in 1988, held in New York’s MoMA. It brought together Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry - in other words, today’s world-conquering starchitects. The list of participants in the MoMA show reads like the shortlist for a typical international cultural project.

The other is New Architecture - Foster, Rogers, Stirling at the Royal Academy in 1986, curated by Deyan Sudjic. It marked the ascendancy of British architecture on the global stage and reinvigorated the architectural-engineering aesthetic Victorians had made famous a century before.

The impact of Deconstructivist Architecture and New Architecture can be felt in 2013: the architects involved in both shows are still the cultural face of the profession. This year the BBC’s leading arts programme, Imagine, has profiled both Hadid and Rogers; Foster has dominated London’s airport debate with his Isle of Grain Thames Estuary proposal and Libeskind is at the centre of the dispute over what should be done with the infamous H-Block prison site in Northern Ireland. Stirling too, remains in the spotlight, as architects vie to win the annual prize - one of the world’s most prestigious - named in his honour.

In January next year, however, a new show at the Royal Academy, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, will seek to reappraise the public’s understanding of architectural culture, which curator Kate Goodwin says has been dominated by the ‘iconic statement’, the kind of architecture the likes of Gehry and Hadid have become famous for. Instead, Sensing Spaces will consider ‘architecture from the angle of the human encounter: how vision, touch, sound and memory play a role in our perceptions of space, proportion, material and light’.

And, while Sensing Spaces is focused on experience, not personality, the names involved are - mostly - heavyweights. Eduardo Souto de Moura, Álvaro Siza, Kengo Kuma and Stirling Prize contender Grafton Architects are among the seven architects taking part, each of whom has been chosen, says Goodwin, ‘for the physical presence of their work’. The show will abandon traditional formats: instead of displaying models, photographs and drawings, the Main Galleries - 13 galleries in total - will be transformed with large-scale exhibits that encourage visitors to be ‘active participants, engaging with structures, textures, sounds, spaces, and scents.

Both Goodwin and director of exhibitions Kathleen Soriano have high hopes for Sensing Spaces, and feel it has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation show. With Grafton’s Shelley MacNamara and Yvonne Farrell on board - eloquent, poetic, persuasive architects whose skills rival those of the starchitects whose names were made in those earlier, seminal shows - it has every chance of being so.

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