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Mar 2014 Journal

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Art Notes

How the space in which we live and work can change is examined by the Royal Academy of Arts in its latest show, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (until 6 April 2014).
Seven creative architects took up the challenge to change our physical perspectives, but the endgame is the same: hugely imagined constructs, in bamboo, polypropylene, pine or concrete.
Diébédo Francis Kéré presents a tunnel of white, light-emitting arches made of 1,867 polypropylene honeycomb panels with holes into which you can poke something resembling coloured straws.
The architects’ mantras decorate the walls: ‘What are you aware of in the space you inhabit?’, ‘How do spaces shape our lives?’, or this from Chinese philosopher Laozi ‘What is important is what is contained, not the container.’
And in the main octagonal Central Hall, the point from which all the galleries radiate outwards, you can read Churchill’s message: ‘We shape our buildings. Thereafter they shape us.’
The love of classical harmony is reflected in Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s severe, grey arches; others, like Álvaro Siza’s courtyard installation, also underscore the historical values of Burlington House.

The last time the Royal Academy daringly offered its glorious 19th-century Beaux Arts, neo-classical interior to a radical challenger was to Anish Kapoor, whose outbursts of spluttering red wax from cannon fire and trains must have required a mammoth clean-up operation.
These architects are a gentler species. One rather delightful installation – and it feels safer to call it that because nothing here offers a practical living space – are Chilean Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s triangular pillars in untreated pineboard and steel, standing solid beneath their plain pediment.
But behind them is a corridor through which you reach an inner space, rather like a priest’s hole or confessional with a stairway. You can climb or walk up – to meet the gilded angels on the ceiling. Look down and you’ll see the four round stairwells with black steel handrails. Great fun for the kids!
Other works includes Li Xiadong’s twiggy labyrynth and much is made of the desire to engage with the structures, textures, sounds, spaces and scents. This immersive, multi-sensory experience also includes two rooms in which heavy concrete blocks suspend and generate light designed by the Irish company Grafton Architects. The lighter room offers white seating all around; the darker one has a skylight which throws light down.
The most beautiful of all is that of Japan’s Kengo Kuma. Through a curtain you enter a dark space illuminated by his wall mantra ‘Always start with something small. Break down particles into fragments.’ He uses whittled bamboo sticks infused with various aromas and scents natural to Japan and plants them like saplings in tiny lit holes in the ground. Their slender, spectral shapes reach the ceiling. This bamboo installation is inspired by a Ko-Do, or Japanese smell ceremony. The smell is even keener in the second room, which seems suffused with hinoki and tatami, and, as you re-enter the pine structure afterwards, your nose picks up the scent of pine even more acutely than before.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Gathering the Voices
next article:Letter from Israel