If you’re thinking of going to see the new architecture exhibition at the Royal Academy, Sensing Spaces (opening this Saturday), but aren’t sure if you’d like it, hesitate no more – just book a ticket and go. It’s one of the most enjoyable exhibitions I’ve been to in a long time. It’s about the human experience of architecture – how we react to it and how it makes us feel. It explores these things through a series of installations by seven architects, each one with a different take on the spaces architecture creates, and all of them challenging the imagination in different ways.
I’m not going to try and cover all seven architects in the space of a short blog post, I’m just going to concentrate on my four favourites; Li Xiaodong from China, Pezo von Ellrichshausen from Chile, Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso and Kengo Kuma from Japan.
Li Xiaodong gives us neon-lit paths through a labyrinth built out of twigs. When you go in it’s disorienting; you can’t see the way out, nor how big it is (it’s pretty big), nor understand where you’ll end up.
You just keep on going, passing little rooms like monk’s cells along the way.
In fact you end up in a zen garden of rocks and mirrors and odd windows with strange vistas. It’s an unfolding story, like a Chinese scroll and it’s lovely. I went round it twice.
Almost as good is the installation by Pezo von Ellrichshausen (who are two people, Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen). It’s built of warm, fresh wooden planks and consists of three towers with spiral staircases inside and a ramp that you can walk up all the way to a small open-topped room just below the Academy ceiling.
The interaction between the structure of the installation and the structure of the Academy itself is part of the fun – you get new angles on the ornate gilded angels and a close up view of them that would normally be impossible.
Diébédo Francis Kéré gives us a shimmering white tunnel to walk through.
Except it’s not going to stay white. There are buckets of coloured plastic rods which you’re invited to stick into the structure – by the time the exhibition ends it will be a multicoloured fantasy.
It’s meant to be a communal endeavour, like the communal work of the village women in Burkina Faso, seen in an excellent short film about the architects showing at the exhibition.
Kengo Kuma gives us a structure of lights and curved bamboo, like the mosquito nets Kuma remembers sleeping under as a child.
There are two installations, Pavilion and Cave, one impregnated with the scent of of Japanese Cyprus and one the scent of tatami, the grass from which Japanese floor mats are made and which is the scent of Kuma’s childhood.
It sounds great, but I’m afraid failed the sniff test – though I did have a head cold at the time.
I just have space for a quick nod to Eduardo Souto de Moura’s concrete copies of door cases in the Royal Academy. If you want to know what else is there you’ll have to go and see for yourself.
The exhibition runs from 25 January to 6 April and it’s open 10-6 daily. Tickets are £14.