Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy

This review of the exhibition is inspired by personal insights acquired during my visits complemented by information from the exhibition catalogue.

Exhibition curator:  Kate Goodwin


Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Royal Academy publication catalogue of the exhibition, 2014.

Jay Merrick ‘Doors of Perceptions’ Royal Academy of Arts magazine. No. 121, Winter 2013, p. 34 to 43.


“Without the senses we would have no true idea of space and without writing we would have only a partial record of how individuals experience their own place in the world.” Diana Fuss, The Sense of and Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them, 2004

Sensing spaces: Architecture Reimagined at the Royal Academy in London set out to reframe the context of architectural exhibition, moving away from a typical display of drawings and model towards a much more immersive experience. Its curator, Claire Goodwin, and the 7 architectural practices invited to contribute, invite us on a unique sensory journey across a series of pavilions that dramatically transform the interior of the galleries. The architects are all from outside the UK and include Kengo Kuma based in Tokyo (with another office in Paris), Grafton Architects based in Dublin, Li Xiaodong based in Beijing, Pezo von Ellrichshausen based in Concepion Chile, Diébédo Francis Kéré based in Berlin and Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura based in Porto.

The pavilions are designed to challenge our expectations of space and the way we feel about our surroundings. Their scale promote direct engagement and experience through our bodies and senses. For once, in a gallery, we are invited to interact with the exhibits without restrain.

According to Kate Goodwin, the exhibition questions the boundaries between art and architectural human qualities of space and the role buildings play in shaping our lives. It attempts to bring people closer to an architectural experience and sits at the opposite spectrum of the often necessary practical and rational responses to briefs. So the primary consideration here is to stimulate senses and provide an experience.


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In this exhibition, we also become active participants. Very quickly, it became clear that these pavilions only really came to life when people interacted with them. Without human interaction and interventions, they run the risk of being merely a series of giant models in a gallery context. With human interaction they become places of exploration, investigation, learning, play, contemplation, discoveries and surprises activated as we move through their interior. “Being physically, emotionally and psychologically aware of the spaces that surround us and of our places within them could be described as having a sense of presence” (Kate Goodwin). The gallery setting promotes a state of mindfulness not often afforded in the environments we encounter on a daily basis. By isolating the pavilions from encroaching stimuli, it allows us to fully immerse ourselves in their respective environments.

We do however live in an age of visual culture and I couldn’t help noticing that a great deal of people were busying themselves with taking photographs and thus experiencing the three-dimensional pavilion through the two-dimensional screen of their touch phones, perhaps missing out on opportunities to feel with their entire being. The curatorial team actually ensured very little of the pavilions themselves was revealed so as not to affect people’s expectations prior to visiting the exhibition.

The exhibition is curated around the interaction between three factors: the nature of physical spaces, our perceptions of them and their evocative power. Architects were selected because their work addresses human and emotional needs and their buildings thoughtfully integrated within the context of the location. In this case, the location is the 19th Century neoclassical galleries designed by Sydney Smirke. So the architects were given an open brief to explore the potential of architecture, its relevance to people and the connections it evokes as well as how one might convey these using architecture constructions within the traditional spaces of the Royal Academy. So the pavilions don’t sit incongruously in the context galleries but create a deliberate dialogue between the existing and the new. Kate Goodwin likens the exhibition to a city ‘”which gains its vitality and character from the ensemble as much as from its individual elements.”

This ground breaking exhibition is to be experienced in the spirit of enquiry not as an attempt to provide finite answers. The sensory relationships between people and their surroundings is too rich and complex to be constrained across a series of universal principles. Any attempt to do this would, in my opinion, create a sterile atmosphere and destroy the poetics of spatial experiences. Instead the exhibition invites a greater appreciation of the spaces we occupy and encourages us to ‘feel’ our environments. Then perhaps we will become a little more demanding in our surroundings and expect more from the built environment. As Winston Churchill once said “first we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

I very much enjoyed this innovative exhibition, so much so that I went three times. However, the first moments of discovery were the most intense and the most visceral experiences. Afterwards, cognition took over to a certain degree as familiarity steeped in. However, as the pavilions became part of my memory, I also began to consciously notice details that I hadn’t seen before and, the conditions of some of the pavilions isn’t constant. For example, Diébédo Francis Kéré uses colourful straws that people inserts into the pure white surfaces of the pavilion, their actions (and creativity) constantly transforming the space. I first saw it on the day the exhibition opened and it was a real surprise to see how it had changed a few weeks later. In this case, a highly uplifting experience.


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All pavilions offered unique experiences, from the smooth cool haptic qualities of Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura to the heightened vistas of Pezo von Ellrichshausen and the playful situations of Diébédo Francis Kéré, they all strive to allow us to explore our surroundings from a fresh perspective. For me however, the works of Kengo Kuma, Li Xiaodong and Grafton Architects stood out. This is were I felt the most acute sense of presence and personal engagement and were the environment resonated the most with my senses.

Kengo Kuma brings harmony, elegant simplicity and weightless sensitivity into the gallery space. The choice of material, bamboo sticks whittled down to a four millimetre diameter, is significant. Kuma speaks of weak architecture, not one that imposes itself on people but one that encourages a symbiotic relationship between the space and people. The bamboo sticks retain their strength and flexibility. The balance between the parts and the totality is exquisite, light and delicate but strong, and in the words of Kuma himself, “the richness of the pause enhances our awareness of the immaterial”. It is in my opinion, the most poetic response to the brief. The atmosphere envelops you into a contemplative ritualistic mood. It’s almost as if I could feel a sense of silence while the undulating bamboo structure introduces a sensation of gentle movement.


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Kuma also infuses the gallery spaces with aromas. Smell, he explains, requires more effort, more concentration than anything visual. The first room contains the pavilion of the ‘architecture of reality’ or ‘architecture of the father’ and is infused with the scent of Hinoki, a Japanese Cypress. The installation is designed for people to walk around it. The second room contains the pavilion of the ‘architecture of void’ or ‘architecture of the mother’, which is infused with the scent of tatami. As you would expect from a ‘mother’, the installation surounds and envelops visitors. Both aromas are memories from Kuma’s childhood, not ours. I had never experienced the smell of Hinoki or tatami before and I actually found the smell of tatami very unusual. So in this context, the inclusion of scents challenges our perceptions even further because they don’t provide any known points of reference.

The design of Kengo Kuma’s installation originated form a single question: ‘how can a minimum of material induce a maximum effect on the body?.’ He continues by saying that ‘we are aiming to create an architecture of experience that dissolves the boundaries between the material and the immaterial’, which seems to me exactly what he has achieved with his installation for the Royal Academy.

Li Xiaodong chose to present us with an environment designed for exploration and discoveries. There are many surprises in his pavilion. The journey starts with roughly cut strips of fabric hanging at the threshold and only partially divulging what lies behind. The transition between the previous gallery and Li Xiaodong’s pavilion is striking. Opening the ‘curtain’ reveals a brightly lit white floor of molten aspect reminiscent of snow and walls made of humble wooden sticks, a very unusual material in architecture, one that the architect has previously used in a project and taken from local resources. In the words of the architect, “metaphorically, visitors are walking through a forest in the snow at night and the forest is represented by a maze of corridors”.


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The wooden sticks invite touch but the narrow gaps between them also reveal fleeting impressions of people moving on the other side, as shadowy figures moving through the forest. The pavilion is designed for visitors to experience a series of spaces rather than one homogeneous volume. It is a journey of discovery, punctuated by niches that create surprises as well as perhaps symbolise shelters in the forest, alternative spaces to hide.

The maze leads to a large space filled with stones and a wall to wall mirror on one side. It is suppose to represent a zen garden, clear-sightedness and inspiration, so I’m not sure that the architects intended for us to walk on the stones and make as much noise as possible as many people did. The stones seemed fairly big for a zen garden so I don’t know how obvious it was as most people didn’t remain on the viewing platform.



This pavilion introduces many sensory experiences (some perhaps unintentional as the exaggerated sound of footsteps on the stones), the sticks are not only tactile but their repetition also brings rhythm to the spaces while the hidden niches offer comfort. Its exploratory nature provides a series of spatial relationships and we are very conscious of our own presence within the pavilion. For Li Xiadong, the difference between the real and the conceptual is the difference between ‘being present in a space, where you are absorbed within it, and looking at images of a space, where the mind is detached.’

Grafton Architects’s contribution to the exhibition is entirely different. Their central concern is both ‘ the aesthetics and structural qualities of materials so they manipulate surface, weight and texture as well as light and shadow’. They filled the upper layers of two galleries with large concrete volumes, one a space of light and the other a space of shadows. Yet despite the materiality of the installation, the space is light and inviting while at the same time able to convey a sense of gravity.

Despite its scale, the spaces still conveyed a senses of intimacy through stillness, proportions and order. Visitors are invited to sit down and absorb the subtle changes in light and shadows. In the exhibition catalogue, the architects refer to David Leatherbarrow’s writings on architectural phenomenology. “He talks about shadow and light and how the production of shadow was once described as the origin of architecture.” Reading this made me want to revisit Junichiro Tanizaki’s seminal book ‘In praise of the shadows.’

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So the installation celebrates the spacious volumes of the galley and Grafton Architects explains that they provide a contrast between the existing classical plan and the free plan of inserted environment. So in this case the spatial experience is described not with words but light.

Photographs taken while on a visit with 
the BA (Hons) Spatial design students from London College of Communication
I also attended:

24th January 2014 An introduction to the exhibition by the curator Kate Goodwin

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28th of February 2014 ‘Staging Sensory Experiences’. A discussion between Chandler Burr, Bombas and Parr, and Jo Malone focusing mainly on smell and taste.

28th March 2014 Sensing Architecture symposium

  • Session 1: Urban Space and Time

Nicole Sierra (University of Oxford): Labyrinths, Spirals and Mazes: Sensing Ballardian Time

Christian Parreno (The Oslo School of Architecture and Design): Boredom and Space: Maxim Gorky’s Coney Island

Nick Dunn (Lancaster University): Dark Matter: the Sublime Liquidity of the Nocturnal City

  • Session 2: Interventions in Form

Stephen Kite (Cardiff University): Shadows of Effect, of Power and of the Unconscious

Peter Muir (Open University): Gordon Matta-Clark’s Rhetoric of Movement

Kevin Fellingham (University of Cape Town): The Presence of Absence in the Woodland Cemetery: Sigurd Lewerentz and Erik Gunnar Asplund, 1914–1961

  • Session 3: Inventing Experience

Dervla MacManus (University College Dublin): Portraits of Experience: The Cathedral Photographs of Frederick Henry Evans

Takako Hasegawa (Architectural Association): Choreographing the Visions, a performative talk in collaboration with Chisato Ohno

Photographs of the symposium © Yoni Ch. @YoniCreatives 


31st March 2014 ‘Writing Architecture”

This event considered how we use writing to help us understand architecture and communicate our experience of it. Speakers include Professor Adrian Forty (The Bartlett) and Dr. Kester Rattenbury (University of Westminster). Chaired by Professor Dr. Philip Ursprung (ETH Zürich).