Doors of perception

Published 1 November 2013

How do buildings make us feel? In the RA’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition, leading international architects build extraordinary new structures in the Academy’s galleries for visitors to explore. Jay Merrick responds to the ideas behind this groundbreaking project.

  • From the Winter 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    You may remember the final scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A very old man lies in bed, dry-lipped, his eyes deeply sunken. The headboard is padded with buttoned segments of dark green velour. The pillowcase and blanket are also green. His hands lie on the turned-back sheet, and we see that he’s wearing an immaculate white nightshirt with a mandarin collar. He seems to be dying.

    Beyond him, tightly framed and slightly out of focus, the bedroom is in pale shades of grey; on the walls there are ornate white mouldings and a gilded candelabra. There is no sound, and the stillness seems almost like the meniscus of the surface of a liquid – invisible but tense. And then, very slowly, the old man raises his left hand, points towards the foot of his bed and, with difficulty, lifts his head slightly.

    We cut to an elevated view of the room, as if seen from above the headboard. We note the ornate faux-historic furniture, and classical statues in the wall niches. Oddly, the floor seems to be made of white glass and glows with light. But our attention immediately locks onto what the old man is pointing at: a black obelisk, about 10ft by 3ft, which stands a few feet from the foot of the bed. Suddenly, every object in the room seems simultaneously banal and acutely surreal; so do the room’s dimensions; as does the very meaning of the room’s space – and the old man’s existence in it.

    When the film was released in 1968, many wondered if the obelisk signified God, or an extraterrestrial being, or the symbolised moment before a new Big Bang – or even, perhaps, Mies van der Rohe’s coffin. Today, we can apply the haunting image of the room and the obelisk to the questions and possibilities raised by the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition.

  • Sensing Spaces

    Sensing Spaces

  • Rory Olcayto, Deputy Editor of the Architects’ Journal, predicts that this will be a seminal, ‘once-in- a-generation show’. The strategy of its curator Kate Goodwin, supported by the RA’s Director of Exhibitions Kathleen Soriano, is certainly a radical departure from the usual format and vibe of the Academy’s architecture shows, which have tended to celebrate architects and architecture in terms of legacy, virtuosity or wow-factor.

    Goodwin has introduced an element of creative and experiential hazard via seven outstanding architects, all of whom are based outside Britain: Eduardo Souto de Moura and Alvaro Siza from Portugal, who are working together; Kengo Kuma from Japan; Grafton Architects from Dublin; Li Xiaodong from China; Pezo von Ellrichshausen from Chile; and Burkinese architect Diébédo Francis Kéré whose office is in Berlin. They will create original architectural installations in the Academy’s Main Galleries that will respond to and react with the neoclassical spaces designed by Sydney Smirke in 1866-67. Unlike typical architecture shows, visitors will encounter actual works of architecture rather than their representation in models, drawings and videos.

    The interventions are designed to stimulate vision, movement, touch, memory, smell, perception of light and spatial awareness in unexpected ways, heightening the sense of architectural encounter and erasing any vestige of art-show gravitas. The Academy has deliberately avoided publishing detailed descriptions and images of the interventions to minimise visitors’ preconceptions.

  • Bronze at the RA

    Bronze at the RA

    Photo: Marcus Leith

  • But what is space? And how do we sense it? It’s hard to have a tangible awareness of space unless it’s defined by movement or objects, and by the consequent play of memory, emotion and imagination. Oddly significant riffles of sand in an otherwise empty landscape, perhaps; a particular face that defines its setting in a busy café; a room whose proportions and contents induce a profound feeling of uncertainty.

    Or think of Donald Judd’s laconic concrete boxes in the seared Texan landscape around Marfa. His 1964 essay ‘Specific Objects’ dismissed the established idea of art as the illusion of represented space; and that illusion in architecture also deserves criticism when applied to buildings like the artificially ‘civic’ plaza-and-tower ensembles of the late 20th century.

    Judd said art had to have immediate, unclassifiable qualities – something like the shock of the unknowable. Our sense of the qualities of objects in space is less acute if they, or their settings, seem too familiar. We know Cézanne, until we encounter paintings such as his lusciously crude La Montagne Sainte Victoire vue des Lauves (1904-06). The abstracted female figures in Matisse’s massive reliefs in the RA’s ‘Bronze’ exhibition in 2012 prompted this same surprise. In Porto, the starkly specific architecture of Souto de Moura’s slab-block Burgo Tower (2007) manages to be both Juddian and atmospherically reminiscent of the surreal façades in De Chirico’s 1915 painting Piazza d’Italia con Statua, Treno et Torre. The sensual provocations of space and form can be encountered in even the flattest of compositions – Edward Hopper’s painting Western Motel (1957), for example. We see a woman sitting on a large bed. In the foreground, there is a chair and a battered leather suitcase; behind her, through a picture window, the bonnet of a car, and dark hills beyond. All of these forms seem to be collaged onto a single plane; the perspective effect stops dead.

    Furthermore, everything in Hopper’s tableau radiates precisely the same quality of stillness and surface texture. And this falsified sensuality and spatiality give the composition a powerful and uncomfortable allure: here is a woman sitting passively, in a space designed as a fantasy waiting to be acted out. By whom? The viewer, of course.

    A more obvious connection with the curatorial ideas that inform ‘Sensing Spaces’ was seen at the Gagosian Gallery, London, in its 2012 exhibition of big pieces by Henry Moore, such as Large Two Forms (1966). The fact that these sculptures were shown indoors (something Moore would not have allowed in his lifetime) made the pieces startlingly ‘other’.

  • Eric Parry RA

    Eric Parry RA

    Photo: Eamonn McCabe

  • But there was another, more telling, effect. The relationship between the sculptures and the gallery spaces was peculiarly charged. There was nothing illusory or representative going on: this was a starkly confrontational, and faintly erotic, encounter with Moore’s abstracted bone-like forms and gnomic figures, and the space that contained them – something to do, perhaps, with the architect Aldo van Eyck’s alchemical mantra: ‘Space becomes place and time becomes occasion.’

    For the 19th-century stage designer Adolphe Appia, space had to become two kinds of place. His stage designs for Wagner, such as the backlit, shadowy forest glade in the opening scene of Parsifal in 1896, took the idea of theatrical three-dimensionality into a realm of dédoublement – spaces, forms and effects that appear objectively obvious, but also act as more subtle revelations of symbolic truth. Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that the installation for Sensing Spaces by Grafton Architects will have Appian qualities.

    The range of sensual confrontations that I anticipate in ‘Sensing Spaces’ reminds me of a conversation I had with Eric Parry RA in 2008, when he confessed to a fascination with the mise-en- scène of polar explorers: ‘Nothingness and hallucination, the recurring dream. No horizons in a white-out. What does it do to you?’

    And what might the opposite of nothingness do to you? Consider the black and white marble of the upper façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, designed by Alberti in the late 15th century. This architecture radiates a peculiar tension: its powerful graphic quality threatens to overwhelm its three-dimensional reality; our sense of architecture and space is challenged.

    Parry said something else on that occasion that situates this challenge in the 21st century: ‘If I’m thinking about a building in a square, I’m also thinking about the street and what the street needs, and what a wall is to a square… the different lines that make up a civilised city. Metaphor, narrative and juxtapositions. And one other thing: the surrealism of cities.’

    We can see this approach to objects and space in very different kinds of modern architecture. Take the strong but mysterious concrete forms in Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery (1968-78), near Treviso in Italy, which jut, step, slope and curve through space. The meticulously arranged indoor and outdoor spaces of Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum (2007) in Cologne are utterly different, with their subtle shifts in volume and light. Yet both architects are striving to achieve the same goal: more engrossing communions between people, architecture and place.

  • Henry Moore, Large Two Forms

    Henry Moore , Large Two Forms , 1966 .

    Bronze. xx. Photo: Mike Bruce. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

  • 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.**

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