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Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined

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The “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” exhibition at the Royal Academy came recommended to me by Lucy Martin, Design Director at the esteemed John Cullen Lighting, with a generous dose of conviction and enthusiasm. Often, such high expectations based on word of mouth come with a red alert for potential disappointment and a great sense of the underwhelming; a growing sense of regret at having taken one’s positive words so blindly whilst throwing myself eagerly into the act of booking tickets ASAP.

This exhibition could not have offered a more contrasting feeling. Sensing Spaces showcases the inspiring architectural installations of 7 esteemed Architects from various corners of the globe. As the name suggests, exploration into these installations provides one with a shifted perspective on architecture, its’ purpose and it’s impact on us as users. Put simply, a ‘reimagined’ view.

Architecture is generally viewed as a structural entity that surrounds us and enables us to perform everyday tasks in our lives with greater ease and comfort. Walls contain us, shelter us and divide a space in which we inhabit. The pieces presented to us in Sensing Spaces invite us to shift our focus from the walls and physical structural elements we see in the architecture, to the space itself, or ‘void’, within these structures.

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Various intangible elements, including light and scent, are used to help manipulate the atmosphere of the space and the emotions we feel within it, ultimately allowing us to move beyond a view of architecture as a purely functional subject. One piece uses the spaces between parallel concrete blocks to channel in light, creating stunning geometric patterns on the surrounding walls, while in another, illuminated, curved threads of Hinoki, a Japanese Cyprus, expel a heady wooden scent throughout the darkened room.

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Understandably, exhibitions such as these are there to provide a conceptual representation of an idea or theme, as oppose to a literal one. It’s likely to be easier for architecture to stimulate our senses in a space where its’ sole aim is to do so, free of everyday distractions – as offered at the Royal Academy. But the aim is to allow us to at least be aware of how our surrounding spaces can have such an impact, and for the time we are within the presence of these installations, to perhaps enjoy a more heightened sense of emotions than we would  in our every day surroundings.

A sense of ‘playful journey’ is a reoccurring feeling that prevails throughout a number of the pieces. We are encouraged to explore a path framed by the architecture, whilst a growing feeling of curiosity and mild suspense comes over us – all before being surprised again at the final destination.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen, A Chilean architectural duo, present a ceiling-high structure comprising, at first glance, of several wooden cylindrical columns. Behind the columns is a tall wall, behind which is a seemingly endless ramp that winds up and up again. Within the columns themselves are winding staircases; both journeys leading the visitor to the top of the structure where we are treated to a vertigo-inducing view of the gallery, seen through a series of peep holes. This unveiling of journeys is only revealed to us upon closer exploration, since only the columns and a wall can be seen from a distance.

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Diébédo Francis Kéré, a Berlin-based Architect, presents a vibrant piece comprising honeycomb-shaped bubble-wrap panels and an abundance of long, coloured straws. The user is not only invited to travel through the space created by the architecture, but to be part of building the architecture itself, making it, essentially, an evolving, collaborative journey. Naturally, with a piece as bright as this, our visual senses are stimulated, but creativity and imagination are encouraged from the visitors also.

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Viewing the exhibition in sole context with the gallery space, I’m inspired by the sheer juxtaposition that is created between these imposing, conceptual and interactive structures, sitting in the surrounds of the regal, 19th Century space in Burlington House. The rainbow plethora of coloured plastic from Diebo Francis Kere’s piece comes close to brushing the gilded, elaborate gold cornices near the ceiling of the building.

A thought-provoking statement that I’d heard in the past and again at Sensing Spaces is that good architecture should be invisible:

“Good architecture should be invisible, but it allows whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible” (Pezo von Ellrichhausen).

When a visual art form is best not assessed by the eye, it seems difficult to rationalise and therefore to credit it with value. However, as striking, stimulating, or aesthetically pleasing a an architectural piece may be, no visual elements should exist without a motive for providing functional, or, as demonstrated throughout the exhibition, emotional benefit – a more difficult act to accomplish than at first it may seem.

’Sensing Spaces’ has prompted a bigger desire in me to absorb more from the architecture that surrounds me; to be more sensory-aware of it’s impact and even more so, a desire to stimulate both emotion and imagination in the little slice of architecture in which I live.

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