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Space, the final frontier, used to be thought of as infinite, whereas spaces are defined, limited. Architecture can be seen as ultra defined space, constructions delimiting space for a functional purpose, whether for dwelling in, for carrying out rituals in, for playing in, for meeting in, educating ourselves in and any number of other uses. Exhibiting architecture is getting a new approach at the Royal Academy in London, looking specifically at how we sense spaces.

I thought I would enter the spirit of the approach and concentrate on how my senses responded on my first visit to the exhibition. Entering the exhibition there is said to be no set route but my eye is drawn to an imposing wooden tower at the far end of the room on the left. Even though it fills one end of the room, the large otherwise empty gallery space (apart from some small wooden stools) it sits within dwarfs it. The tower seems basic in appearance, of raw plank construction, unvarnished, unpainted cylinders. spiral stairs can be seen and we are told we can go up the central one. We reach a platform at the top – suddenly I have memories of medieval castles, tree houses and an awareness of the contrast to the room outside. Gilded angels (part of the original ceiling decoration of the room which I don’t remember seeing before – false ceilings removed?) are seen through rectangles cut in the wood and again medieval associations, this time of religious buildings, of being in the roof space of a church or cathedral, but also of the ‘gods’ of an opera house or theatre. These are Victorian angels.

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The platform itself is not a place to linger long. I notice small things – a strip of leather on the metal rail indicating the exit ramp of the tower, further down the wood is worn down, indented at the height of a hand hold on the vertical, I am becoming aware of the slightest details, including apparently mistaken nail holes in the construction, perhaps because there is so little to see but also a heightened level of awareness – expectation maybe? Going down the ramp, at first open but then an enclosed tunnel, it seems a long way down and there is a definite sense of escape at the end. It occurs to me that it would be a different experience going up the ramp and down the spiral stairs.

Into the next room – an arch just within the arched doorway, at an angle, dark grey, hard, steel?, a minimal reflection of the 19th century classical architecture of the room, unattached but it seems a spare part not a necessity. Nothing else in that room, but the eye is drawn to a curtained entrance to the next room and within is a dark space almost filled with a structure, a twig like mesh, intriguing. I gradually work it out. There is minimal labelling: the name of the architect, materials used, a brief quote, but no ‘explanations’. There is a hint of smell being important, but this is very subtle, merely wood like.

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It is a broken grid, lights at the base appear in straight lines, or curved according to where one stands, intriguing geometry. I walk around the outside of this circular or elliptical structure. It is beautiful, elegant, clever. Then another smaller room with a smaller structure, the same idea but this one can be entered and is not as complex.

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Retracing my steps to find something else I see white plastic with coloured lines poking out of it.

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A tunnel, with boxes of coloured plastic straws to apparently be added by us to the structure. I wonder how it will change and whether it will be made anew each day or build up and become more and more complex. It seems welcoming, democratic, joyful, participatory and, yes child like.

Then another detached arch. This time I can see more meaning. I am aware of crossing a threshold, a boundary.

Another curtain hides the end room. I enter to see a wall of thin tree trunks, paths left and right, a strange white glowing floor.

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I choose one way around and find a small, dead-end room, cell or sauna like, with a window into another space where two people are sitting and conversing. Back around the maze like structure, right, left, right etc and eventually the space opens out into a room with a floor of dark brown earth clods. A mirrored wall gives an illusion of extra space, but bounded still, reflecting in on itself, not by any means the infinity rooms of Yayoi Kusama.

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The walls though are beautiful, regular yet irregular, enclosing yet not intimidating, warm, dark, natural. However there is nowhere to sit and contemplate except those tiny cell like rooms.

Out into a dazzling white room, a strangely heavy structure hanging from the ceiling in beams, a textured surface seen but which cannot be reached or touched.

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Adjacent is a dark space which gradually becomes lighter as one’s eyes adjust revealing another grid like structure hanging from the ceiling. My partner, a spatially inclined architect, realizes it is symmetrical and we trace the outline by mirroring each other walking each from the opposite corner to trace the line under each beam. I would not have noticed that.

It is actually only on a second visit that I linger and become aware of the changing light above.

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I wonder how visitors will respond to the exhibition – provoked, intrigued, elated or bemused, disappointed. I have felt all of those responses already. Children will enjoy it I am sure – will it restore child like feelings to others? – those basic emotional and physical responses, rather than analytical ones. I have had to work hard at it myself, and not been entirely successful. My partner found it easier and has been more taken with the approach than me. We agree to let the experience sink in and return. On the way out we realize the yellow steel columns littering the courtyard must be part of the exhibition.

We talk about spiritual places we have visited and been affected by – Le Corbusier’s monastic La Tourette, a convent chapel by Niall McLaughlin. Is an emotional response a part of the spiritual function? What was that experience and how was it achieved? A stripping away of distractions, reductive but not denying the senses. a heightened awareness certainly. How do materials affect that? – soft or hard, concrete can feel warm, steel cannot. Natural materials, such as wood of course, encourage association with nature.

The effects of light and dark are not often made explicit – dark means the cave, shelter, night, sleep, enclosing; light is open, expansive but exposed.

How do we move through spaces? – walking, climbing, sitting, proscribed or random.

What does space itself mean? – inside, outside, the void, enclosed, open, infinite/finite, above, below.

There is of course a paradox in this exhibition – of being located in an ‘abstract’ place, ie a gallery rather than a ‘real’ place. This changes the relationship of inside and outside. It also makes the ‘architecture’ more of an art object, an installation rather than ‘real’ architecture.

These thoughts are becoming increasingly random. Time to stop.

Further Information (including architects and more images!)

http://static.royalacademy.org.uk/files/sensingspaces-eg-vf-1776.pdf

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/sensingspaces/meet-the-architects/

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/21/sensing-spaces-vaulting-ambition

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/26/sensing-spaces-royal-academy-review

http://www.coolhunting.com/culture/sensing-spaces-architecture-reimagined.php

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