For its latest offering the august institution of the Royal Academy of Arts leaps in to the realms of architecture. In a brave departure from the more usual art historical exhibition, they are setting out to ‘evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery environment.’
One might think perhaps it is because the artistic merits of the structures that that surrounds us has become increasingly evident in recent years: the eye catching work of for example Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano springing to mind. It is no longer satisfactory for important buildings to be simply functional, they are required to make a statement, stand out from the crowded skylines or push the boundaries of what is possible or expected.
However this exhibition does not take the easy route, but cleverly looks at architecture not from exterior appearances but according to the nature of the internal physical spaces, and our own emotional response to them. We are invited to step in to the galleries to experience for example the manipulation of the light, mass and structure or the transformations brought about by our use and interaction with the structures.
Seven architects from Africa, South America, Europe and Asia were selected and asked to explore the potential of architecture within the neo-classical surroundings of the RA. The result is an exciting exploration of what architecture can do as a physical rather than purely visual experience as well as a refreshing new look at the actual gallery space itself, which is blissfully uncluttered.
The most striking piece is from Chilean group Pezo von Ellrichshausen – a four-legged tower of plain wood which stands monumentally at the end of one of the larger galleries. You soon come to discover that these legs contain spiral staircases leading to a high level platform. This lies right under the spectacular glass canopy ceiling and brings you eye to eye with the gilt angels and decoration of the cornice.
The works are nicely contrasting. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has created a wonderful and peaceful scented room with a gently illuminated structure of fine bamboo that rises towards the ceiling. Meanwhile Li Xiaodong has used his theme from the Liyuan library in China to create a delightful labyrinth of wooden screens including an illuminated floor and pebbled courtyard.
Eduardo Souto de Moura has created arches from moulds of the RA’s giant doorways and Grafton architects successfully alternate a light and dark space using panels hung above head height.
The least successful installation is where Diebedo Francis Kere has joined two galleries with a tunnel of honeycomb plastic. Visitors are meant to insert coloured plastic straws into the honeycomb to create something new. The obvious has of course happened – the public didn’t add to the architects vision, but attempted to create their own and the result is an installation that is an untidy tangled web of straws.
One does note the fact that the invited architects have created ‘architecture’ that has no other function or use; in other words, there is a question whether it is actually architecture rather than say, art. Despite this, the show serves its purpose very well and one leaves having been reminded how architecture has the power to provoke experience and to enrich our daily lives. Hopefully the RA will continue to stretch the boundaries with future exhibitions .
Sensing Spaces – Architecture Reimagined is on at the RA, Piccadilly, London until 6 April 2014
For further information please visit: www.royalacademy.org.uk