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Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

Richard Wentworth reviews the RA’s latest architectural exhibition, which features work from seven international architects

How a show is titled can weigh down the enterprise, even if the organisers mean well and believe that they are adding a spot of gravity. Sensing Spaces is an RBT, a Really Big Title, quite some knapsack for seven architects to pick up and carry off together

Gazing at the enormous posters for this Royal Academy exhibition in the gutsy tunnels of London’s underground, I already found myself provoked by wandering thoughts − the climate, the weather, the fall of light, that impulse to gaze up at the heavens amid the summery pleasures of lying down in long grass and becoming alerted to the tiniest earthly sounds. There is always the dreamspace of a hot bath. Sensing Spaces.

Artists have long trundled back and forth across these sensual and psychological and political territories. By the time I had arrived at the serial thresholds of Burlington House, many of these creative characters had gathered in my pocket, like so much loose change. Facteur Cheval was rubbing up against Simon Rodia, Bruce Nauman was fingering Kurt Schwitters, Dan Graham was chastising Mario Merz who was having words with Doris Salcedo, Cristina Iglesias was teasing Marcel Broodthaers who was asking Mike Nelson for a light. On a nearby parapet, the processional Marina Abramović was giving walking lessons, while Robert Gober measured up the wall by candlelight.

Several hundred years of Grand Tours, and oh so much on-a-whim palazzo cribbing are our updates here, all packed away in the elaborate fabric of Burlington House − arriving in its exhibitions is never ever a casual thing. The central octagon of the Sensing Spaces exhibition contains a contrived room set in the Richard Hamilton Dr Strangelove-style. Ken Adam, not Robert. With its anodyne wall texts politely attached, I hurried through for fear of being caught up in a session of missionary instruction. Catching sight of a timbery flak tower, complete with Atlantic Wall meurtrières, set the scene for my personal procession through the various enfiladed spaces of the show.

‘Scene’ here is a double entendre because Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s confection of hefting formwork acts both as a traditional eyecatcher (or a folly, a Green Park escapee) and yet it also maintains the stagey presence of set design, which the terms of this show demand of all its participants. We might imagine some emails − ‘Please respond to the space, and let’s prepare as many of the components as possible off site. Do please respect the galleries, and no running in the corridors.’


Installation by Pezo von Ellrichshausen. Photograph: James Harris

Audiences really do love the histrionic thing, so people are getting busy soaking up the aroma of Chilean pine and indulging the nostalgia for Iberian wrought iron traditions, while choosing which of the four spiral stairs to try out. Up and down, and up again, and experimenting with the differential speeds of its secreted ramp. Crystal Maze! It gets noisy and collaborative and socialised. People like the ‘danger’ and the martial power of surveillance as they pick their personal viewpoints. There is an atmosphere of childhood too, of being in illicit spaces, the fun of seeing that ceilings are skies, that corners are hideouts.

We stride and strut, we are spies, and pirates and look-outs. We are crow’s nest folk.

We, though, have never met the inventor of the sawn board, or the parent of the first brick, but we detect their histories. Boulevard is both act and thing and has its origin in walking the ramparts −’bulwarks’. The lovely word ‘gaze’ is the root of ‘gazebo’. It goes on and on.

Questions of point of view, scale and size haunt all the exhibits in the show, and in turn they are taunted by the temptations of display. Clever lights and ticklish false floors, smoke and mirrors, surreptitious gantries and virtuoso casting all have walk-on parts. Smoke, that great space finder, never got through the RA interviews, but it’s exactly what stage lighting implies.

The concrete reveals and soffits of Eduardo Souto de Moura are schoolmasterly ‘real’ things, but much too ironmongered and clunky to allow you to enjoy their potential to be freshly sloughed snakeskins. Their veritable actuality is instructional because these cast-offs remind us that the doors and doorways of our lives come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Here you are invited to smell power. Portal training.


Installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura

This show seems a good place for children to enjoy the way we so readily swap size and scale, how we effortlessly travel into the spaces of a train set, or walk through a doll’s house, and how we make animal noises to liven up the model farm. Others make. We make believe.

Diébédo Francis Kéré leaves out the tools of the plasticky school playroom, and it is amazing to see so much adult playfulness permissioned − the necessary silliness of childhood slumbering in us all, joining and twisting and weaving coloured straws. Witnessing and competing, cooperating and learning.


Installation by Diébédo Francis Kéré

We are reminded of our fingertip cleverness, just as the scattered carpenters’ work stools beneath PvE’s chubby silos remind us of the time and space it takes to make things, the space that each of us takes up. Within a lifetime, ‘plastic’ mutated from a gorgeous spatial adjective to an umbrella term for synthetics. Nonetheless we easily imagine the incessant beat of the well-aimed hammer which we (sadly?) replaced with the chatter of the screw gun.

Li Xiaodong imports silenced woodland and chippy shale to recall or mirror nature, and then he provides plywood hidey-holes, which domesticate his illustration of a sylvan maze. It feels bookish, as if Li was a librarian of the forest. He corrals things, he directs us, but knows we will all want to disobey.


Installation by Li Xiaodong

Kengo Kuma and Grafton Architects hover near spectacle, while reaching for the sublime. I felt a cathedral coming on, but ersatz materiality (Grafton) and the seduction of lumens (KK) are unfriendly and treacherous companions.

Lightness of being and counterweights are aspects of physics, as much as they are feelings. As the young Claes Oldenburg said, ‘Gravity is my favourite form maker’. How easy to see why architects seek escape velocity.



Installation by Kengo Kuma


Installation by Grafton Architects


Installation by Grafton Architects

Sensing Spaces ends, of course, with its own promotional film, the final sanctuary before you re-enter retailia amid the displays of the RA shop. Much as I had evaded the finger of piety in the Strangelove set, so too do I resist explicatory films (too many Giardini ghosts for me in years of proselytising biennales).

BUT we are social animals, so the sight and warm density of dozens of people gathered at the screen (and so many more even watching through the scrim which separated them from us) drew me in.

Here in a very few words everybody had their say, the enveloping power of cinema to whisk us around the world. Nothing in this show is as wondrous as the African rock-carrying sequence, and nothing so wise as Alvaro Siza’s encapsulations of his well-lived observations. I read Architecture without Architects the very same year as I discovered Barnett Newman, so it was wonderful to walk back into Piccadilly past Siza’s expository concrete gesture: a yellow whose equal you will never find in Northern Europe, a fallen column, a post, a lintel, a capital. Call them what you will, but they will stay in your mind’s eye.


Installation by Alvaro Siza

Sensin Spaces: Architecture Reimagined

Where: Royal Academy of Arts, London

When: Until 6 April


James Harris
Anthony Coleman

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