Sensing spaces: architecture reimagined

[slideshow_deploy id=’12433′]

Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy of Arts in London  is an exhibition showcasing seven different spaces from architects from around the world. The concept behind the exhibition is to see how people respond to the various spaces and how a space can influence people in different ways. As a visually impaired person, I found the exhibition thought-provoking and gained a deeper understanding of architecture as a result.

The first room I went into was called the blue pavilion and was designed by two architects from Chile – Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen . It consisted of four tall cylinders with a staircase in each one which led up to a wooden platform. The handrail of the staircase was steel and felt cold and smooth to touch. I didn’t feel enclosed as I was going up the stairs. The wood of the platform was warm and smooth to touch, and the space didn’t feel echoic at all. The exit from the platform was a ramp that had a very gentle slope to it, and kept turning back on itself. It gave the impression that I’d been descending for ages and that I’d travelled far further than I thought.

The second room I entered was called Hinoki wood scent and was designed by a Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, who sees architecture as subservient to nature. Hinoki is a species of cypress tree which is native to Japan. The room was filled with 4 mm diameter whittled bamboo sticks infused with aromas and these sticks were stuck into lights similar to tea lights, but they were not bright enough for me to sense the lights. The adjoining room had tatami scent. I could smell the scent when moving from one room to the other, but once I got used to it, the aroma seemed to disappear – it was, perhaps, too subtle. The rooms were small, but they gave me the impression of being large with a sense of extra space. I’m not sure why this was, perhaps because they were cold and gave me the feeling of being in a forest.

The next room I discovered was called the straw space and was designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré, born in West Africa and now with an office in Berlin bridging the worlds of Africa and Europe. His work places the community at the heart of design, construction and use. His creation was made of polypropylene honeycomb panels filled with plastic coloured straws. There are 1,867 connected honeycomb panels in total and visitors to the exhibition have added straws to the space so it is always evolving.

Kéré says, “I believe it is important to engage people in the process of building so they have an investment in what is developed. Through thinking and working together people find that the built object becomes part of a bonding experience.” I thought this was true, because when I first walked through the space it felt messy and fragile to me and I was wary of touching it. However, I found that I really enjoyed the challenge of adding a straw to the space and then appreciated the building far more because I had contributed to it. I bonded more with the space, and found it more appealing than when I first entered it.

My favourite space was the pebble room which was designed by a Chinese architect, Li Xiaodong. His architecture combines a spiritual exploration of ideas with rational thinking. The walls of the room were made of hazel sticks and it felt like a maze. There were thousands of hazel sticks on both sides, and I could feel through the walls which gave me the concept of space around me. Although there wasn’t a scent in the room, the hazel sticks gave off a natural aroma that gave me the impression of being outside, possibly in a wood.

The lighting came from LED lights which shone upwards through a Perspex floor, which felt smooth under my feet. Once again the lighting was not intense enough for me to sense. Further into the room, I came across a tunnel which was made of wood and felt smooth in contrast to the hazel sticks. I enjoyed being in the tunnel, and didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. When I’d reached the end of the tunnel, I arrived in a pebbled area. The pebbles felt smooth to walk on, but made an intense crunching noise underfoot.

It was satisfying hearing my feet creating the sound, but I felt the reverberation from other people’s feet and this become irritating after a while. I found the sound overwhelming, and it annoyed my ears after a time because I was in such a confined space. I was pleased to step off the pebbles, the floor felt even softer and smoother in contrast to them, and made me appreciate the sensation even more. It stimulated my senses to have such a contrast in texture.

One of the other spaces in the exhibition, designed by Irish architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley Mc Namara, was exploring dark and light and the sense of pleasure that is gained in moving from one to the other. I couldn’t appreciate this structure because there wasn’t enough contrast between light and dark for me to be able to sense anything.

Two Portugese architects had also exhibited but they were not so easy to appreciate from a visually impaired person’s perspective. Alvaro Siza has made use of the space in the Annenberg Courtyard of the Royal Academy for his piece of work comprising three columns. It is a subtle exhibit for which you needed to observe the whole of the courtyard to appreciate its scale. Eduardo Souta de Moura’s piece was apparently a visually powerful work involving an archway; he is known for making dramatic use of shape and sweeping curves.

Overall, I found the Sensing Spaces exhibition very enjoyable and it has made me challenge my thoughts on various styles of architecture and how different spaces can affect our emotions and stimulate our senses. However my experience of the exhibition could have been further enhanced if accessible information had been available in braille or audio, its absence was disappointing. Nonetheless, I look forward to my next visit to the Royal Academy of Arts with anticipation.

by Harriet Smith

Sensing Spaces is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
020 7300 8000 from  January 25  –  April 6

About The Author

Related Posts