Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined

“To hear a sound is to see a space” 

From a young age I’ve always been frightened of caves. The thought of entering a large, dark and rocky space terrifies me. Although I’ve questioned and criticised these rather odd feelings, I’ve come to terms that these odd feelings are actually something to embrace. The Royal Academy’s exhibition ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ epitomises this idea. It intends to morph the familiar spaces we know into something abstract in order for us to feel and engage with our senses so that we, as viewers, create the art. A cave, for me, is one of these abstract forms of architecture displayed in this exhibition as it evokes an unusual response within me.  It’s intention is to evoke feeling within the viewer; much like the fear I feel responding to caves. Though this exhibition is based on architectural design – it’s the way the viewer feels in these spaces that really creates the art. 

The exhibition called in many architects from different areas of the world to showcase their designs and transform the once familiar spaces of the royal academy Royal academy; Diébédo Francis Kéré, Grafton Architects, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, Lia Xiaodong and Kengo Kuma. Whilst the exhibition itself took place in 2014, the RA have decided to look back on this work and have created a virtual experience for the viewer. 

“We tasked them with reawakening our visitors’ sensibilities to the spaces around them, inviting an appreciation of the emotional power of architecture.” 

The exhibition itself consisted of lots of differing types of design; from built wooden installations to interactive structures designed around straws. What was interesting about this exhibition was that each architect brought something personal and unique to the gallery. It felt like each architect was designing a space that had the essence of where they were from or what inspires their designs. I felt that this was key for this exhibition as it engaged the viewer to indulge into the personal feelings the architect has and is immersed into a space designed to give the viewer the same response.  

“I always start with something small, breaking down materials into particles or fragments that can be recombined Ito units of the right scale to provide comfort and intimacy”  

My favourite part of this exhibition was the work of Kengo Kuma. He was able to isolate an idea that was very specific but make it have great effect on the senses – its simplicity is what make this installation so provoking and poignant. He centred his work on the use of bamboo that was specially imported from Kyoto in Japan. The bamboo had matured for 4 years making it at a state that can be bent into shape. As well as this, the bamboo has the ability to absorb and slowly release fragrances. By using bamboos that give off fragrances adds to the sensual experience of his space. But what makes this work so effective is the use of light. Kuma had two rooms within the RA where he showcases his work. The bamboos are statically standing in the middle of each rooms. However, Kuma has made the choice to change the luminosity in the two rooms; one being lit and the other in almost complete darkness except for LED lights casting a light on each piece of bamboo. This choice not only differentiates the visual effects of the bamboo but the overall mood and tension of the room.  

This design choice is key for his installation work as the change in luminosity ignites abnormal response within the senses. As a viewer, this change of scenery is almost chilling and uncomfortable – a work that the RA’s walls have never really captured before of this extent. It completely changes the room from a recognisably art gallery to a space that’s hard to describe other than an emotional response. I think what’s also interesting is theirs is a contrast in the darker room; whilst the viewer can just make out the outline of the room and can see the bamboos which give off a ghostly effect, the viewer is then reminded they are in a gallery by the rooms ceiling. The ceiling remains exactly the same, trimmed with the detailing that can be recognisable to RA’s galleries walls. This representation is almost like a ‘reality check’ to the viewer, reminding them of where they are and that the space they’re in is merely a façade. What made this work stand out to me was that it could draw in other external factors to help create the mood of the space. The nature of this room was to elicit the feeling of entering a cave. For me, the  abnormal and uncomfortable feelings I feel when entering a cave became highlighted by this piece of work. Not only does this physically bring  similarity to the work, but it creates a similar psychological response within the viewer too. I think this is what makes the work not only an architectural experience – but a holistic emotional experience. Whilst the architectural design of materials and space shines through , the unfamiliarity it creates is what really transforms this work into an emotional and sensual experience. 

However, whilst it is important to understand the feeling this work has on the viewer, it must be taken into account that I saw this exhibition ‘virtually’. Seeing and understanding art through a screen can be difficult and can often give a different response than when experienced in person. Not all senses would be able to react to this work for example the viewer would not be able to smell the fragrances given off by the bamboo from virtual experience.  Therefore, these ideas of Kuma’s work are based off a virtual relationship to the work. Whilst seeing the works of these architects may elicit an emotional response, it could be argued that this is not actually the ‘true’ response the viewer would have to these works had they have experienced it in person. This makes the judging the effects of these works difficult because of the virtual boundary. This being said, Kuma’s work ( despite being seen virtually) allows the viewer to experience a close feeling to what experiencing it in person may be like. To me , a piece of work that can give such an effect despite not being experienced first hand is a work that is remarkable as it cannot be limited by the boundaries imposed upon it. 

Architecture , to me, is something I feel that is often overlooked. We live in spaces dominated by architecture and we often ignore the impact these spaces have on us. Therefore putting architectural design from the real world and into the gallery was something I feel was essential to understand and respect the power it has. ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ has allowed the viewer to look at architecture in a new light. Much like the abnormal feelings I feel when entering a cave, the exhibition has aimed to change these once known spaces into something redesigned to allow new and abnormal feelings to judge the experience. It helps the viewer to disregard familiarity of architecture in order to experience architecture in its rightful way – with all senses

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