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.

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

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