‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Re-Imagined’ at the Royal Academy works at two levels. Firstly, it unconsciously puts into question the relationship between objectual art (minimalism/post-minimalism) and installations. This brings about a series of considerations about the complex relationship between architecture and art. Secondly, it highlights the fact that architecture is mainly ruled by the same nonsense that we often find in contemporary art. Let’s see.
In the exhibition foreword, the President of the Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun sets the phenomenological tone by saying that ‘Sensing Space’ offers visitors ‘the opportunity to engage with architecture directly and to experience it through their bodies and senses’. I did not know that I needed a show at the Royal Academy to experience that however it is the curator of the show, Kate Goodwin, who gets closer to the point when saying that ‘this exhibition does not merely highlight the functional or purely visual aspects of architecture but also the sensation of inhabiting built space’. According to her, it is the visitor’s ‘presence’ what is at stake here. In Goodwin’s own words: ‘It is not possible to pinpoint a single factor that evokes presence and it is a challenge to describe. One can imagine that over almost two millennia, visitors to the Pantheon in Rome have felt the hairs on the back of their neck stand on end beneath the bast enclosing dome with its open oculus’. She is clearly referring to the ‘feeling present’ that a building is supposed to give us but I am already having trouble with this word because I do not think one feels ‘present’ at the Pantheon but instead one feels ‘A Presence’. Whose? I don’t know. Aggripa’s, the Past, History, God knows…
The Royal Academy show is composed by seven architects from around the world- Grafton Architects (Ireland), Diebedo Francis Kere (Burkina Faso and Germany), Kengo Kuma (Japan), Li Xiaodong (China), Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile) and Alvaro Siza (Portugal)- who have been invited to use the Royal Academy’s galleries to test themselves and their discipline, to create unique spaces for an audience to experience. Thus, it is not about buildings but about installations as a type of art (?) that creates experience. It is this experience that Kate Goodwin understands from a phenomenological perspective as ‘presence’.
As we can see, the foundations of this show are upon this very word and it is Philip Ursprung who brings light into what they mean by it in his essay ‘Presence: The Light Touch of Architecture’ published in the exhibition’s catalogue. There, he describes with effective precision a visit to Nella Golanda’s Flisvos Sculpured Quay near Athens, where ‘we felt that what was built related in a specific way to our bodies’ and also ‘we felt a state of heightened attention to the here and now and that it sharpened our appreciation of our surroundings’. If Goodwin considered the building as ‘present’, Ursprung sees it as ‘performative’: ‘The relationship between the artificial and the landscape, between small-scale and large-scale, between the carefully arranged. almost ornamental stone slabs’. But what makes the performance of space different from the performance of being in the world? According to Ursprung, the performance of space happens when a negotiation occurs between the building and the visitor and the latter experiences ‘a comparable mix of guidance and freedom to move’.
I think that what makes this show particularly interesting is that it explores the rather untrained path where ‘experience’ (as an end in itself) is artistically (and therefore, theatrically) constructed. There is not much distance between the works of these architects and James Turrell’s atmospheric installationism or Robert Wilson’s post minimal stage design. It is as if including the building as part of the ‘guided experience of the art viewer’ brings about a synergy that is not only physical (as Goodwin claims) but also (and most importantly) emotional. Is this architecture or art? What do we do with ‘installations’ as art after a show that replaces artists by architects only to create that ‘emotional engagement between the viewer and its surrounding’. I think this show is great because destroys the artistic claim that installations bring anything to the table that architecture could not deliver. Just a thought.