Most of the exhibitions held at Burlington House are of fine art, yet the ranks of the Royal Academy are made up of painters, sculptors, printmakers, architects and engravers. The membership rules state that at least twelve members must be architects and Sensing Spaces, the new show in the main galleries curated by Kate Goodwin brings architecture centre stage from 25th January until 6th April. Seven architects from around the world are featured, most having taken over one of the galleries though one is being shown outside in the courtyard.
The best way to experience architecture is to get inside it, which is what makes architecture exhibitions tricky – the architects taking part here have work in places as far flung as Burkina Faso and Japan. Rather than showing photographs or drawings of existing buildings, the RA has invited the architects to create a new piece specifically for the show. Viewers are able to interact with the works, enter them, climb them and feel something of the atmosphere that each one produces. The Academy’s top-lit spaces allow the works to interact with natural light as they might if encountered in the wild. Currently January’s greyness is blazing in, but as the exhibition continues and the sun appears, the atmosphere of the pieces will change and develop. One participant, Grafton Architects, regard light as so important that it is listed, along with wood, steel and calico, as one of the primary materials from which their piece is built.
The largest intervention is by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, a practice from Chile run by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. They have been given the largest room in the Academy, in which they have constructed a structure created from Chilean pine.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen at the Royal Academy
This wooden oil rig seems to extend down beneath the parquet floor – although as the gallery is in a Grade One listed building this is unlikely. The platform towers over the west side of the room, gives off a scent of fresh wood and is climbable – each of the four towers enclosing a spiral staircase. Two of these spiral the usual defendable-with-a-sword clockwise whilst the others should prove more easy to broach should they ever be attacked by a medieval army.
Li Xiadong’s installation (Closeup)
Chinese architect Li Xiaodong has created a maze of a space with a similar building technique to that he used to create the wooden Liyuan Library in a village outside Beijing. He has said that ‘…if China doesn’t go green it is the end of the world,’ and his library is covered in firewood and 99% recyclable. His piece in the Royal Academy has white underfloor lighting, and formal walkways lined with firewood branches. Together they give a sense of walking though a freshly snow-covered forest. Except for the lack of cold. And the dead straight paths.
The other participants in the show are Francis Kere, Kengo Kuma, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura. Of these Kere’s white igloo of unglamorous polycarbonate catches the eye. It is structurally sound but aesthetically unfinished – visitors are invited to help complete the piece by covering it with coloured straws. The Academy has 550,000 of these, so by the end of the show the igloo will have been transformed and will appear completely different. Outside Alvaro Siza shows the birth of the column – or its death if you walk past it when you arrive and only study it as you leave. A 16 minute film by Candida Richardson finishes the show, allowing the architects to say something of their practice and and show glimpses of their work in situ around the world.
The works created for this exhibition show some of the different ideas in contemporary architecture. It is moving away from a modernist problem-solving remit towards an engagement with the human spirit, local materials and more specificity. Buildings are an often unacknowledged background to our lives and the curator hopes that viewers will take something of the exhibition home with them (she wasn’t clear on this point, but I don’t think she meant literally). Rather, when a ray of light falls across your desk she hopes you will look up and consider the space anew.