The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
An architect’s design inevitably grows out of a meeting of their own understanding of architecture, its principles and history, and the site and brief of the intended project. A new project permanently alters the site and its context; they are now understood differently. Similarly the experience will add to the architect’s understanding of architecture in ways that will influence future projects. Both of these things are in constant flux. The Royal Academy of Art’s ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ exhibition presented seven practices with the opportunity to explore the above process. Their brief was to explore the experiential nature of architecture in the context of the Beaux-Arts galleries at Burlington House. The resulting installations provided a forum through which I, and other visitors, to the exhibition could explore our own relationship with the built spaces we inhabit every day. Kengo Kuma was one of the participating architects. His design in the large and small Weston Rooms was visibly influenced by the Japanese tradition in which his practice was formed. When describing his installation, Kuma talks about the Japanese concept of Ma, often translated as void or pause, or as Kuma describes it ‘space…sense of place…a rich emptiness.’
The two galleries that Kuma’s design occupy feel very different, yet, the lighting, colour and material used is the same. What differs between the two galleries is the form of the pavilions - as Kuma calls them - and the scent. The first and larger of the galleries has its centre entirely occupied by the fragile bamboo structure. I find myself slowly circling it and, as I do, framed diamond-shaped voids come in and out of view. The slender bamboos are pinched together at regular points creating the diamond forms. These have been composed into a large structure, resembling flames, which push up into the gallery’s ceiling. Even in the dark gallery, this structure is quietly invigorating. It is only lit from below and the light appears to travel along the bamboo, adding to the sense of dynamism created by the flame-like form. The darkness also increases my awareness of the thick sweet smell - of Hanoki (Japanese Cypress) - emanating from the bamboo. This scent leaks out into the adjoining galleries and provides an olfactory connection, where a visual one is blocked by a heavy black curtain. The structure in the second gallery is also formed of diamond-shaped voids, articulated with delicate bamboos. However, this structure occupies the galleries edges and encloses you as you step into it. The scent is also fresher, grassy (tatami), but also more intense as it completely surrounds you. Where the structure in the first gallery was invigorating, this one is calming and invites me to bestill. This pavilion feels protective and, despite the minimal material, forms a thickness of overlapping voids.
Kuma has responded to the context of the Weston Rooms of Burlington House, and a brief of exploring the experiential nature of architecture, by drawing on his interpretation of the history and traditions of architecture. The Japanese concepts, which inform his own horizon of understanding, enter into a dialogue with the historical European tradition of Burlington House. The Japanese architectural tradition creates intimacy through the use of materials that can only be used on a small scale - such the whittled bamboo used here. The delicate structures created, in this instance, contrast with the solidity of the walls of the Weston Rooms. In the first gallery, the people occupy the void between the solid walls and the fragile dynamic structure. I watch them navigate with their backs turned towards the solid walls, facing the changing patterns of framed voids. They need to move to fully discover this pavilion, but the weight of the darkness and the sweet scent keeps the movement slow and delicate. They move, and then pause, and then move, and then pause again. As I first entered the gallery, I had to stop until my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I watch as others do the same and lower their voices as they cross the threshold. In the second gallery, the pavilion has a different relationship to its surrounding walls. Whereas the first pavilion creates a charged void between the structure and the walls, this one lines the walls, softening them, and creating a more intimate space. As people enter, they find a place to stand and are still, only moving to accommodate others.
Ma is pivotal in Kuma’s interpretation, as manifest in the two pavilions. Their thickness is achieved through the articulation of voids, using the minimum of material and light. The thickness is supplemented with the scents, which are also important for creating atmosphere in traditional Japanese architecture. The voids that are occupied also create different, and in some ways opposing, ‘sense of place’ through their differing forms and relationship to their context. Kuma’s understanding of the principles and history of architecture is materialised in this design, which has in turn, no doubt, contributed to his understanding. Its materialisation has also provided the visitor the opportunity of developing their own understanding - of architecture, Burlington House, London, Kuma, Japanese principles and so on - through this encounter.