The transition made of plastic elements between two rooms allows visitors to interact with each other within the exhibition. Photo © Kere Architecture, James Harris
The cave-like installation of Diébédo Francis Kéré now looks much more colorful. Not only children stock it with the colorful straws. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, James Harris
Russian Constructivism? Room installation by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, which is only revealed by commission.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, James Harris
Hanging plates and a dramatic lighting transform the installation into a sacred space.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, James Harris
Steep spiral stairs lead the visitor to the top of the wooden platform by Pezo von Ellrichshausen.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, James Harris
The installation made out of fragile bamboo rods by Kenzo Kuma. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, James Harris
Feel the space!
by Ralf Wollheim
Feb 22, 2014

Children run, laughing and playing, through the venerable halls of the Royal Academy, buzzing and climbing their way through the installations. The adult visitors are considerably more reserved and first just take photos, which is expressly permitted. After all, that too is a way of exploring the space, albeit a rather more visual one. Not that it suffices to understand the works of the seven architects featured in the show. Atmospheric lighting, unusual materials and smells determine the route set for visitors. The course consists of simple objects as well as winding labyrinths and on balance constitutes a plea for better architecture. At first glance, some installations call to mind works by visual artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Bruce Nauman and Olafur Eliasson – but a quick rush round and swift pigeonholing are of little help. Indeed, the course, cleverly conceived by Kate Goodwin, through the exhibition “Sensing Spaces” provides diverse experiences that complement one another well and even at first glance justify simpler objects.

Initially the wooden platform resting on four solid cylinders by Pezo von Ellrichshausen from Chile also looks simple. Yet as soon as you have climbed the steep spiral staircase you are treated to an unusual view of the otherwise empty exhibition space. If you let your gaze wander over to the objects along the wall, and keep it there, at some point it will rove across the golden Neoclassical decorations on the ceiling and the – dusty – heads of the angels keeping watch over the hall. The view of the sky over London through the skylights (they otherwise tend to get ignored) is also surprising. But it isn’t until you slowly descend a gently sloping ramp that an entirely different feeling for overcoming heights settles in. In the end it is no longer surprising that the structures created by the Chilean-Argentinian architectural duo are likewise arranged around similar central staircases, emphasize views and use simple, robust materials.

Kenzo Kumo, in contrast, makes use of feather-light bamboo poles just four millimeters thick for his elegant room installations. These are not only mysteriously illuminated, but also exude a delicate scent of hinoki wood and traditional straw mats. For the Japanese architect at least it is a smell that gives him the feeling he is home.

Diébédo Francis Kéré became known for his African projects, in which he primarily uses local materials. His approach is no different in London, where he uses plastic elements with a honeycomb structure, often used as filling material in the UK. He has deployed elements like these to create an organically shaped, cave-like transition between two halls, which forces visitors to huddle closely together and enables them to interact. The oversized plastic straws with which visitors – including the adults now – can decorate the honeycomb are a welcome diversion. The tunnel, originally white, quickly became a brightly colored structure that over the course of the exhibition has increasingly being adorned by straws and forms a pleasant, colorful contrast to the historical halls.

Ireland-based Grafton Architects took a radical approach to the exhibition halls and entirely transformed them. Large, dramatically illuminated installations hanging from the ceiling emphasize the impact of a deliberate lighting mood. The space calls to mind the religious atmosphere of modern church buildings, with the difference that here the surfaces of the indicated walls is not so pleasing to the eye given the intense illumination. Quite unlike, incidentally, the interiors of the buildings by the two architects.

Li Xiaodong’s labyrinthine installation seems to be the most fun for visitors. Indeed, it invites them to explore a whole series of spaces and corridors. The walls are made of simple twigs inserted into a frame, meaning visitors can repeatedly look through them. The resulting complex and varied surface has different densities depending on where you are standing. This corresponds to a view of architecture that is based less on a set form or an object (as is usual in the Western world) and more on experiencing it from the inside out as a series of spaces. A comparison of Western and Chinese architecture also functions as the starting point for Li Xiaodong's research and for his buildings. The wooden-branch installation surprisingly reappears in a film in the final room of the exhibition. For he used precisely such walls as a form of screen, light filter and as shielding elements for a library close to Beijing.

As such, we can say this much for sure: As playful as the installations may be and as impressively as they may present individual, space-shaping qualities, they are all rooted – sometimes more, sometimes less – in the practice of the participating architects. The installations successfully come back full circle to real built spaces in the accompanying film and in the catalog. Whereas initially the diverse qualities of spaces are only alluded to, here they become tangible. Thus in the end, it is not so much spectacular facades or building styles that we discover, but well-conceived spaces. The projects and architects were chosen precisely because they offer just that. As such, the exhibition is also a plea for less showy architecture and a greater focus on spatial qualities.

The exhibition “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” is on show from January 25 through April 6 in the Main Galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.