Review by Sean Sheehan
Give them an inch and some architects will go the Zen mile, quoting ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Zi, ‘ what is important is what is contained, not the container’ or, like Eduardo Souta de Moua, come up with their own cryptic maxims: ‘space for an architect does not exist, so we design the limits that give the impression of space’. It is not surprising, then, when the main galleries of the RAA are handed over to the seven of the world’s most original and exciting architects (from six countries, and not European ones), to do what they want to convey the power of architecture, their exhibitions don’t follow the conventional route by mounting little models, drawings, projections and schematics Instead, they re-define the traditional architecture exhibition by immersing visitors in a multi- sensory experience. After all, we don’t just look at buildings and structures; touch, sound and memory also affect our perceptions of space, proportions, materials and light. There is, in other words, a lot going on when we engage with architecture.
The biggest of the installations, by Maurice Pezo and Sofia von Elrichshausen (who in 2002 established a Chilean art and architecture studio) is a monumental structure in untreated pine. There are elements of shock and awe in its three huge cylinders and the platform supported by them, especially when first encountered from the door at the other end of the gallery. First impressions evoke a temple to some pagan deity or a viewing platform for reading the stars and it is only when you get up close that its materiality hits home. Spiral staircases reveal themselves inside the cylinders, inviting visitors to ascend and stand close to the gilded decorations around the Neoclassical gallery’s ceilings. An architectural triumph, it is also a playroom for connoisseurs of space and an experiential embodiment of Lao Zi’s aphorism.
Grafton Architects was founded in Dublin in 1978 by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farell and they have designed domestic homes as well as major public buildings. Their University Luigi Bocconi in Milan (2008) garnered plaudits and 2012’s Stirling Prize nominated Medical School, University of Limerick. As their contribution to the RAA exhibition, they use mortar, sand, silver mica and emulsion paint to project a lesson in the importance of light (the ‘stuff of architecture’) and its reflection in space. Point taken but their means of achieving it — suspending large wooden pieces from the ceilings — was a little aesthetically clunky for me and they have been crossed off my shortlist of potential designers for my new house in West Cork.
Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to photograph and interact with the exhibitions and in the case of Diébédo Francis Kéré’s tunnel, composed of 1.867 honeycomb panels, add to it with constructions of your own using the long plastic straws that are provided in various colours. A literally constructive idea and when I saw it in late January the overall effect of visitors’ contributions was satisfying but on the verge of looking congested; with more than two months to go, the designer may be feeling some trepidation about the final outcome.
Kengo Kuma from Japan sets out to show a sensory dimension to architecture – that of smell — that is often not allowed for when buildings are being designed. Using bamboo, tatami mats and cedar wood, his exhibition creates a scent that blends in harmony with the peace and quiet of the two rooms he has created. The idea is gratifying and while it could only work on a small scale the effect is good enough to be convincing. Something not altogether differenent is at work in the work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong. He creates a maze of wood alongside a floor space that glows pacifically and the visitor feels compelled to tred slowly and gracefully into a room of stones. Quite magical.
‘Unlike almost any other art form, architecture is part of our everyday life, but its ability to dramatically affect the way we think, feel and interact with one another is often overlooked, said curator Kate Goodwin, and it is a bold claim that the seven exhibitors have taken to heart.
Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined Royal Academy of Arts, London runs until 6 April 2014