Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, Royal Academy of Arts, 25 January — 6 April 2014. Main Galleries

Blog — 29 Jan 2014

The relationship between architecture and the senses is explored at the Royal Academy with a major exhibition that occupies the main galleries and courtyard. Seven architects from around the world (none of them British) have created a sequence of installations. The results are mixed but nonetheless fascinating.

Some are informed by the setting, choosing to augment or add to the galleries, and the more successful ones create a sensual environment that transports the visitor beyond the walls of the Royal Academy. The attraction of the show is that at its quieter times it does allow the visitor to engage with architectural ideas that are often lodged in the sub conscious, something that Bachelard explores in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space.

The exhibition reminds us that sense and memory are intimately intertwined, there are five senses, and unfortunately not all are explored here. Perhaps the architects needed to unlock a sixth spatial sense, a sort of ‘unami’ that happens when we really relate to a space. The weight and smell of concrete, or the light absorbing qualities of colour. I can still smell the oil of Richard Wilson’s installation at the Saatchi Gallery in St Johns Wood as it transformed the space around it. Lasdun’s purple and heather carpet at the National Theatre was designed to remind us of the wild thyme growing around the open-air auditoria in Greece, the birthplace of theatre. I can the taste the ozone as I stand by the sea; I sense the past as I touch of the smooth handrail and hollowed steps worn by generations of people as they climb a bell tower.

For me the most successful rooms, perhaps not surprisingly, are both from Asia, Kengo Kuma darkens the spaces, and minimizes the intervention to fragile 4mm bamboo wisps that are illuminated scented with memories of his early home, and Li Xiaodong creates a Hazel lined sequence of routes and spaces that transport the viewer to another place.

On the other side of the river next to The Globe, Allies and Morrison have completed a small theatre that replicates an Elizabethan indoor auditorium. It is a timber space entirely lit by candles. The result is magical, the space hovers between darkness and light, the actors hold and manipulate candles to dramatic effect, the smell of beeswax, fills the small room. You sit on timber seats, there is no need for amplification, the room resonates. This is the stuff of memory, and it is a tangible example of a space you sense in the most complete way.

Most importantly it is permanent, it will age and last, and perhaps that is the problem that some of the architects struggled with at the RA; they are creating stage sets rather than theatre.