Strange geometries: Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

Seven installations by seven architectural practices – life-sized interventions designed to confront the senses and engage the mind.

Sensing Spaces
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1

The “Sensing Spaces” exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts aims to cultivate a wider audience for architecture, while asking some fundamental questions: what is it to feel present? How do our senses locate us in space and time? The answers come in the form of seven installations by seven architectural practices – life-sized interventions designed to confront the senses before engaging the mind.

With the irrepressible rise of cities, it is easy for the cultural and human values of architecture to be obscured from the public gaze by a focus on architecture as the expression of power and investment. Implicit in “Sensing Spaces” is the notion that a more modest approach could now be viable.

Architecture is its own province – it is neither an art nor a science – and the context in which it is created is as organic and reactive as the context in which it is best understood. Here lies the problem of making an exhibition about architecture: to explain its complexities is almost impossible and passing judgement on buildings as simply sculptural forms is to misunderstand where the power of architecture resides.

This is a practical discipline: the results surround us and exist beyond the gallery – rather, they are the gallery – and can only be truly understood through subjective experience. Buildings may be the ultimate carriers of meaning but they can be difficult to decipher. It is the remit of the architecture exhibition to help decode them.

The Royal Academy show addresses the dilemma by focusing on the experiential and visceral qualities of architecture. The choice of seven architectural practices from six countries, representing four continents, is an unusual and clever move. As each practice uses its own language in the form of an installation to explore the sensory perception of space, the myth of a single global architecture is exquisitely and quietly exposed; the individual architects’ nationalities become visible.

The rooms of Kengo Kuma – a Japanese architect whose new outpost of the V&A will soon rise over the Dundee waterfront – interpret the sensory aspect of architecture in a quite literal manner. His barely lit spaces are elegant and ethereal; he has created an installation from tiny bamboo strands, woven together and infused with the scent of tatami mats and Japanese cedar wood. These are apparently smells that evoke Kuma’s childhood, that comfort him and send him “to the sleep of the innocents”. Your footsteps disturb the inner calm; you are an interloper, all too clumsy and western.

The darkened room by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects – designers of thoughtful education spaces across Europe – creates the most immersive experience here and it leads you to confront your expectations of light and space. Nothing touches the floor: instead, a large concrete-like form descends from above; light plays across the surfaces from an aperture over our heads. The structure is at once pendulous and strangely uplifting.

You can almost see the lines that were erased in pursuit of this final precision. It gives the onlooker insight into the meaning behind a line, encouraging us to think about the architects’ manipulation of light and volume.

Álvaro Siza is the grandfather of the show – he is an accomplished architect of churches, houses and museums across his native Portugal. He has the courtyard as his canvas and has installed slabs of concrete, one lying down, one standing up, intended as columns – yellow, apparently, because he saw the flash of a bus pass by Piccadilly ... though our buses are red.

It’s an obscure entrée for the show – but then perhaps Siza feels no need to express the meaning behind his work: you simply have to visit one of his many buildings to feel and understand it.

It is significant that the Royal Academy, a beaux arts institution, is confronting the thorny issue of communicating architecture to the general public and attempting to answer the overarching question, “What is architecture all about?” The ambition is admirable; the difficulty is deciding whether it has succeeded or simply left the visitor bemused.

The exhibition runs until 6 April


Branching out: an installation by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma at the Royal Academy of Arts

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism