Zumthor’s small but potent book Atmospheres (2006) has a wonderful monochrome photograph portraying the reception hall of Broad Street Station in Richmond, Virginia, in the late 1950s. At first glance, everything in the photograph seems knowable and unremarkable: the island-seating surmounted by a row of lamps, the polished floor, the precise perspectives, the 60ft-high columns and the human figures in the middle distance of this grand space designed by John Russell Pope in 1919.
But the 21st-century eye snags on the tiny figure in the middle of the shot: a businessman in a dark suit and white, knee-length raincoat, carrying a large briefcase. And, suddenly, we are no longer simply encountering a charming image of the station; that small figure has confused the issue, rather like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffins acting as a red herring.
In a world after the onset of conceptual art, our anonymous businessman could easily be an exhibit; at the very least, his precisely attired insignificance produces an accentuated sense of space and, decades after the picture was taken, a bittersweet aura of loss. Gazing at that photograph, we experience the sensualities of both physical and memorial space.
What will you experience in Li Xiaodong’s Zen-like labyrinth in Sensing Spaces, or as you pause in Diébédo Francis Kéré’s delicately formed passage? Will you find Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s structure an affront to the architecture of the gallery, or will you find the room engaging in an entirely new way? When you encounter Kengo Kuma’s installation, how will it affect your sense of space and experience of form?
In the 21st century, architecture has become increasingly subservient to a world in which new buildings are designed to serve zoned, CCTVnetworked urban spaces, and this has the effect of zoning human behaviour. These insidiously banal settings are then sprinkled with glinting droplets from a Niagara of so-called architectural ‘icons’ – symbols, as the architect Peter Eisenman puts it, for a generation that can no longer see; or for whom, according to the eminent architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, the retina has become a point of sale. Perhaps our other senses are being consumerised, too.
‘Sensing Spaces’ is not conceived as a therapeutic antidote to this pervasive situation. It is a bold and timely attempt to challenge familiar sensual relationships between people and architecture. And one hopes, like the old man in the bed, to experience the equivalent of at least one riveting ‘obelisk’ moment in Sydney Smirke’s galleries.
**Sensing Spaces is in the Main Galleries, 25 January — 6 April 2014
Jay Merrick is a London-based architecture critic.**