Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy

A vibrant new Royal Academy show, Architecture Reimagined, stirs all the senses.
Most architectural exhibitions are a worthy parade of models, plans and photographs. While these may show visitors architecture, they don't help them to experience it.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy is all about how architecture, or rather what architects design, makes us feel.

"I wanted visitors to be able to experience different uses of spatial relationships, proportions, volumes, materials, light and shade, textures, sounds and smells in the galleries of the Royal Academy," explains the exhibition's curator Kate Goodwin.

To achieve this, she asked seven very different internationally recognised architects to create multi-sensory environments, in a show that encourages visitors to touch, feel, smell and hear, as well as look at, exhibits.

Goodwin hopes visitors will find ideas that they can adapt to use in their own homes. At first sight that might seem unlikely, given the enormous scale of some of the exhibits. But key to the show is the way it helps people change the way they think about space.

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Stairway to heaven: architect partners Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen inside their installation for the Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition at the Royal Academy. 

Pezo von Ellrichshausen is a Chilean art and architecture studio established in 2002 by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its enormous wooden contribution to the exhibition takes up nearly half of the main RA gallery.

The work consists of four monumental enclosed spiral staircases built with pine that lead up to what, from ground level, looks like a large box. Despite its scale, the use of wood encourages a sense of warmth and comfort.

The recent fashion has been for staircases to be dramatically exposed, but the enclosed spirals are inviting and reassuring. Their enclosure amplifies the drama of emerging at the top, not into an enclosed box but on to a platform with cut-throughs in the wooden walls that reveal unexpected views out over the gallery below. An approach like this might work well with a gallery space in a home.

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Stairs with a view: The pair, based in Chile, have created giant enclosed spiral staircases built in pine, leading to a platform with cut-throughs in its walls to reveal views over the main gallery.  Image: James Harris.

Similarly, Irish architectural practice Grafton allows visitors to experience how light can create drama and alter the mood. Using suspended canvas that has been sprayed to look like concrete panels, it demonstrates that if windows and/or skylights are positioned correctly, light will flood into the spaces below and can affect frame of mind.

On a very different scale, Kengo Kuma, from Japan, divides areas up by using the most delicate fronds of bamboo. His simple screens mark different parts of a room without closing off the space. The bamboo smells of Japanese cypress and straw, to demonstrate how scent can be used effectively in the home.

From China, equally simple and adaptable is Li Xiaodong's coppiced hazel, used for surfaces to divide space both internally and externally. His use of a translucent white, underlit floor feels like walking on a river of ice.

He has also made a small, cream painted room from plywood that could become a useful, quiet space in a modern metropolitan home, and has created a Zen garden with pebbles and mirror-lined walls - both features that would work in a London garden.

Diébédo Francis Kéré, from Burkina Faso in West Africa, based in Berlin, used honeycombed plastic sheeting to make room dividers that could be the ideal way of defining spaces in a small London home.

The Royal Academy is selling the exhibition installations to the public at the close of the show in April via its micro website, The Great Architecture Fair. Objects for sale range from complete installation pieces to components for upcycling, and include Pezo von Ellrichshausen's wooden stools and a bag of Li Xiaodong pebbles.

The website sale goes live at 9am on March 14 and runs until midnight April 7 (visit royalacademy.org.uk/ architecture fair). Prices from £5. Sensing Spaces is at the Royal Academy, W1 until April 6. Adult tickets £14; concs available and under-12s go free.

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