The Main Galleries of the Royal Academy have been transformed by installations created by seven architectural practices from around the world.

Through this blog we share some of the thoughts, challenges and stories that led to the development and creation of this exhibition. We introduce you to the architects, giving you a window into their thinking and hints of what they are working on for the show.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until 6 April 2014.

The exhibition asks questions of architects, visitors and of architecture. It invites the physical and imaginative exploration of the galleries and installations, encouraging both personal and collective responses. The events programme – from debates and poetry reading to musical performances – is similarity provocative, encouraging new behaviours, thoughts and activities that animate the exhibition and, in many cases, propose fresh perspectives on the installations.

Secret Yoga at Sensing Spaces

©Royal Academy of Arts.

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of being part of a 100 person-strong Secret Yoga Club event that took place beneath the weighty and atmospheric Grafton Architects installation. It is a space I have spent a lot of time in, but witnessing all the bodies moving in sync, with the light slowly shifting its colour, mood and direction over them was quite something else. Lying in relaxation afterwards with the voice of opera singer Kate Dowman floating through the space sent chills down the spine.

Tonight the Soapbox talks continue in the galleries with the acclaimed landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith. who in his words, will take us “from the Mezquita in Cordoba to an eighteenth-century garden masterpiece and contemporary urban parks, to suggest that there are some fundamental qualities that make for engaging spatial experiences”. This follows Jonathan Glancey’s animated speech last week – which included a call from Glancey for architects to be brave and not simply the ‘servants of developers’.

Monday evening is something quite unique – a ‘Speed Conversation’ event, reflecting the structure and evolution of the exhibition, which was developed through dialogue and discussion. Hosted within the galleries, this event is a chance for anyone to come and ask questions to those involved including designers, fabricators, engineers, marketing creatives, suppliers and technicians, to name but a few. It will provide a rare insight into the curatorial process as well as what is involved in mounting an exhibition of this scale and ambition.

And as the weeks unfold there will be more exciting activities. Check out the events programme online, or sign up to our Architecture mailing list to make sure you’re always up to date.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until 6 April 2014.

The galleries have transformed from building site to exhibition almost overnight. It is amazing to finally be able to stand back and see the exhibition as a whole, not just concentrating on the details of each installation.

Li Xiaodong installation in 'Sensing Spaces' at the Royal Academy

©Royal Academy of Arts.

The MDM team take off the film that has been protecting Li Xiaodong’s floor, ready for visitors to enjoy.

It was also the moment when almost all the architects were on site and had the opportunity to experience the exhibition – observing how their work related to that of others and within the gallery spaces. I think we have all discovered some great unexpected vistas through the galleries and intriguing relationships between the works.

Installation view of 'Sensing Spaces' at the Royal Academy

‘Sensing Spaces’ Central Hall, exhibition design by Shizuka Hariu / SHSH Architecture and Scenography. ©Royal Academy of Arts.

The Central Hall is transformed by Shizuka Hariu and SHSH Architecture and Scenography.

Souto de Moura and Kere in 'Sensing Spaces' at the Royal Academy

©Royal Academy of Arts.

Eduardo Souto de Moura and Francis Kéré meet again having spent a weekend together here in London on a site visit last March.

For me, by far the nicest and most rewarding part of this week has been sharing the excitement of the opening with the architects and seeing how people are responding. The feedback during these early preview days has been overwhelming. People seem to be genuinely smiling and talking to one another in the galleries. And everyone seems to find something different within the installations.


©Royal Academy of Arts.

Francis Kere had imagined that people would lie back side by side on the lounges he designed … it seems that RA Friends have other ideas.

The Kere installation in 'Sensing Spaces' at the Royal Academy.

©Royal Academy of Arts.

And new tunnels are being formed.

sensingspaceskere sensingspacesgrafton

©Royal Academy of Arts.

Our attendants also seem to be having fun and one man I met in the galleries said he felt inspired by the promo film and wanted to lie down.

Despite the long days and late nights in the run up to the opening, I can’t resist coming back in over the weekend to see what happens as we open our doors to the public.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until 6 April 2014.

It may seem a strange term for an architect to coin, but Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has been developing an idea of what he calls “weak architecture”. Spurred by the Kobe earthquake of 1995, this is not architecture which is structurally weak, but an architecture which is anti-monumental. Instead of focusing on the form of a building, or its sculptural properties, he is interested in the sensations of inhabiting space. He sees architecture as subservient to nature, which informs his use of materials, how he locates his buildings and what sensations they evoke.

‘Weak architecture’ is also about our relationship with space, and I believe that the human body responds to this kind of weakness. For instance, the ground is not like concrete – there are leaves and particles of soil, details that provide diversity and richness, which is what human beings need to find in architecture.

How do we naturally respond to spaces? How do we feel when standing in front of a large concrete wall as opposed to a small wooden fence?


Kengo Kuma & Associates, Casalgrande Ceramic Cloud, Reggio Emilia, Italy. Photo © Marco Introini

After returning from working and teaching in the US to start his own practice in Tokyo during the last recession, Kuma found an appreciation for traditional Japanese craft and architecture. These sensibilities continue to develop and inform his selection of materials, and how he choreographs space.


Kengo Kuma & Associates, Great (Bamboo) Wall, near Beijing, China (2002). Photo © Satoshi Asakawa

He uses materials – both natural and manmade – in small component parts, sizes that we can each physically relate to; from the Stone Museum in Tochigi, Japan, where he uses delicate carved blocks of stone positioned at angles with openings to create a porous screen, to his new FRAC building in Marseille, which is an inventive take on the standard glass façade, with small glass panes set at angles to give a shimmering effect to the outside.

Image by Flickr user Jacqueline Poggi. Some rights reserved.

Kuma’s work is also about sequence – his buildings are laid out so that they offer a series of rich spatial experiences – and about time, how these spaces change throughout the day, seasons and weathers. Although incredibly seductive in image, his architecture, with its nuances and subtleties, needs to be experienced.

Photographs can only capture a fixed visual image, whereas for me architecture is about the whole experience of the space. This can include touch or smell – anything that offers a special connection. (Kuma)

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

The emerging installations give me a thrill as I walk through the galleries, checking drawings, looking at details, observing the teams solving all sorts of practical issues on site. But it’s all the people from near and far who have engaged with the project which brings a smile to my face.

Here are a few moments I captured over the last couple of days that I wanted to share.


Photos © Royal Academy of Arts.

The MDM team who are working with Kere’s 1867 honeycomb plastic panels took a moment out of their day to make this coat rack… name tags and all!


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

I found George from MDM working out the stability options for the base of Kere’s structure after our site meeting.


Photos © Royal Academy of Arts.

The crew who earlier in the day had been building Kere’s tunnel spent the afternoon carefully touching up Grafton’s work, while one of the builders brought over from Chile – his first time on a plane – sawed yet another piece of timber.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

Shortly after I had been sent the initial ideas by Siza and Souto de Moura I headed into the Main Galleries to consider how they would work. On my way I passed a colleague who was carrying the below sketch by Sir Hugh Casson RA. It was delicately wrapped in tissue paper on the way to be framed for the Casson exhibition which was to shortly open. It was a serendipitous moment. Siza had proposed working with columns in the courtyard, and Souto de Moura with door arches in the Main Galleries.

On looking at the sketch, I saw that there was indeed a place within the Royal Academy – between courtyard and galleries where the columns themselves met the door arches. Every time I now walk up the main staircase from the entrance hall I appreciate this junction. How else might these architects make us look more carefully at the spaces around us?


Sir Hugh Casson, PRA, ‘Grand staircase, Burlington House’, c. 1977. Watercolour with pen and ink on paper, 347 X 250 mm. Photo: R.A./Prudence Cuming Associates Limited. Estate of the Artist.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

More than any other architects, Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura have made me look with a fresh eye at the Royal Academy’s galleries and architecture. Both Pritzker Prize winners and heroes in their native Portugal, their refined and subtle architecture always sets up an intriguing dialogue with its context. As a young architect, Souto de Moura worked briefly for Siza, his teacher and mentor, before setting up his own practice.

Their relationship has remained very close, with offices in the same building in Porto, and they now also both live in a building designed by Souto de Moura. I invited them to work as a duo – either creating a joint installation or two separate ones, which none the less could be seen as a pair. They chose the latter.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

Álvaro Siza’s Serralves Museum, Porto (1999).


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Casa de Musica Subway Station, Porto (2005), one of the 60 new stations constructed over 10 years across Porto.

Walking through the Main Galleries with Souto de Moura on his first site visit he observed the order and symmetry of the Neoclassical plan. These are the qualities that make them so good for exhibitions, as you can set up a vast number of relationships between works and sequencing of spaces. Souto de Moura remarked that:

The Classical language of architecture appeals to me because it’s clear, it’s organised and it offers a sense of security and continuity. In a building like the Royal Academy, as soon as you arrive at the entrance you know where the exit will be and the doors are just where you expect to find them. It’s like a story or a movie that you understand from beginning to end.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

Left: Meeting with Eduardo Souto de Moura about his installation. Right: Álvaro Siza’s sketching at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

This respect for history and tradition is one shared by his mentor. Siza talks often about continuity; that everything he does as an architect is building on something that already exists. He says that architects don’t invent anything; they ‘transform reality’.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

Álvaro Siza’s Leça de Palmeira, Matosinhos, Portugal (1961-66), a beautiful meeting of architecture and nature.

A visit to the Royal Academy is a rich architectural experience in its own right, and I have always thought of this exhibition as starting the moment you leave Piccadilly and enter the courtyard. When I asked Siza about his first impressions of the RA, he said:

You walk along the street with all its traffic and find yourself in front of the big archway. Inside it is the courtyard, which comes as a surprise. The building’s façade, with its portico and columns, which are whiter than the rest of the stone, has a very strong presence, though the scale is domestic rather than monumental.

It will be Siza’s work that you first come across in the exhibition, located in the Annenberg courtyard. It is a characteristically subtle piece which invites observation of the courtyard as much as of itself.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

Álvaro Siza sketching during a site visit to the Royal Academy in 2013.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

Christmas and the holiday period was rather a surreal time. While others were thinking about feasts and wrapping presents, our minds were reeling with schedules of lorries and orders for installation. In the final days before Christmas the galleries were handed over to us with the last departure of artwork from the Australia show.

The galleries then began their transformation. First, cleaning, painting and removal of much of the standard exhibition paraphernalia (lights, roof covers etc.), then the tools and building materials arrived in all their varied and component parts. Then came the architects and workers from Chile and Japan who joined the local teams, all eager and ready to put together what they have been carefully prefabricating over the preceding months (and there are plenty more stories to come…)


The first delivery arrives into the empty galleries. The scale of the exhibition still surprises me as we look from Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s space, through the Central Hall and into Grafton’s space in the far distance. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.


Last Friday, MDM Props – who are making most of the installations – called a site meeting. About 30 of us gathered in Gallery III and were given instructions; hard hat and high viz vests to be worn at all times; health and safety protocol to be followed; restricted access to certain galleries; schedules for the arrival of further materials as the installations progressed.

A chill of excitement ran down my spine. The Main Galleries are officially a building site, humming with the sound of saws, drills, genie lifts and foreign languages.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

The Chilean timber has a beautiful smell and feel.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

The Chilean builders have arrived and things are starting to take shape.


Gallery III, which will house the installation of Pezo von Ellrichshausen, has all the pre-fabricated components carefully laid out ready for the workers to arrive and build to begin. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

The Japanese team on their first day as they prepare to work with the intricate bamboo.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

The trolley to move what is a small stack of the 20,800 twigs which will comprise a major part of Li Xiaodong’s installation.


Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

The walls have been painted, working lights put in place, scaffold towers erected and the first parts of the installations brought in.


Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

Hear direct from curator Kate Goodwin as she shares behind-the-scenes snippets.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

When putting together this group of architects I purposefully sought out those who would bring a variety of perspectives on how we think about architecture and the spaces around us. I sought those from different cultures, generations and geographies. As I hope this blog has captured, the conversations I have had with them all have constantly broadened my own understanding of architecture.

This was none more evident than with Francis Diébédo Kéré. Born in Burkina Faso, he left West Africa as a teenager on a German aid scholarship to complete his education. While still an architecture student, he won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture for a school he designed in his native Gando. While he has an office in Berlin, he continues to straddle the two worlds of Europe and Africa. He brings what he has learnt in the west – what he describes as technological know-how – and combines it with local materials and traditions. As he says, it is about listening and understanding, and then seeing what he can bring to the process… His building sites are places of experiment and engagement for all.

In Burkina Faso it’s important that when people are a part of the projects, you create a strong attachment. But at the same time if you are making people responsible and aware of what they have done, and aware of their potential- their capacity to do something – they’ll care about it; they’ll appreciate it much more. The collective experience is always part of things you do in Africa, but here the collective experience is to be inspired by something that is there, to be together to see, to consume this object. We describe seeing it, experiencing it as consuming (Kéré)

The very notion of an architect is foreign where he grew up. Buildings are made through knowledge passed and shared and using materials that are available and to hand. With the work he has done, he has both celebrated and enhanced these traditions.

“I went back to visit the project, and suddenly people come from all around: somebody said “the architect is back!”, and people don’t know about architects and architecture at all. But we transformed the material that they knew, we took it from the people and let them transform it, cut it differently and lay it differently. It was a surprise for them. People said ‘okay, this is something we call architecture’… So maybe that is what I can bring.”

Kéré paints wonderful pictures with his words and his energy is palpable. His world became even more alive for me recently. We have commissioned Canny Richardson to make films of the architects and their works (which will be available online when the exhibition opens). We met on her return from Burkina Faso and she described some of her experiences: of the landscape, of the people, of the structures and of how Francis is so highly revered. She showed me some beautiful footage and moments that she captured. Here is one snippet which I really liked.

Something she said she was not anticipating was the dark, simply because here – in London in particular – we rarely experience it. She described being led at dusk (about 6pm) by Francis to the site of the Women’s Centre, a very special project still under construction. As the sun went beyond the horizon a small amount of light hovered in the atmosphere, and she could just make out shapes that let her follow the figure in front of her, before darkness descended entirely. As she told me about this, something Francis had spoken about came to mind. I asked him about ‘spatial experiences’ in a desire to explore ideas and influences beyond formal architecture. Space for him was created by people – it was physical and also aural, and was about a sense of containment in a vast landscape. For him what came to mind was the following:

Every night when I was a child my family gathered together. We would sit close to each other in a sort of circle and listen to the adults telling stories; there was no light so we couldn’t see each other. It was an intense feeling of being in a safe, protective space that had been created through our presence, along with the lone voice of the storyteller in the darkness. All of us in the circle hung on every word.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

It was when sitting with Li Xiaodong in a courtyard garden in the Huairou district, a mountainous area near the Great Wall, an hour north of Beijing, that many of his observations of Chinese culture and sensibilities became much clearer for me.

He highlighted what he saw as a distinction between Chinese and Western thought, the latter concerned primarily with the object and perspective, the former with the subject and what is contained. He took this further in talking about how he saw Chinese forms of representation, particularly painting.


Exterior view of Liyuan Library, Huairou, China. Li Xiaodong Atelier, photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

The Chinese tend to focus on the intangible rather than the tangible – you see this in Chinese painting, in which the blank surface is often just as important as what is inscribed. For instance, in a painting that shows a pair of swimming fish, the presence of water, which can be inferred from the blank background, is a vital part of the image. Allowing room for the visitor’s imagination is essential if a space is to become a satisfying physical experience.

As I looked around me, Chinese landscape paintings I had seen came to mind. The mountains rose around us, but there was something about the colour and lack of contrast in the foliage, intensified by the light and atmosphere, which almost dematerialised them. Their detail was hard to make out, giving more an impression rather than a strong sense of their form.


Tea with architect Li Xiaodong. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

He also recalled an experience he had as a young architect overseeing the construction of a hotel in the Yellow Mountains, where he developed a very different understanding of nature and landscape.

From a distance you think of a mountain range as a series of objects seen in silhouette. But once you are within it, you start to perceive it as a series of spatial relationships that surround you. Your awareness of scale, distance, texture and enclosure all come alive and you become conscious of your own presence within it. Recognising this was a beautiful moment.

Sitting in that courtyard I was also intensely aware of the magic of my surroundings. The look of the mountains was completely foreign to me, so I took time to soak them in. The objects, furniture and details that surrounded us were also beautiful – teapots and crafted cups, woven trays, woollen blankets, the aroma of the tea. It was a feast for all the senses that gave me an intense appreciation of my environment and the delights it was offering.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

The architects’ installations are in various different stages of realisation as we speak. In fact, I am on my way now to visit the London workshop where many are being made. We are starting to get a sense of how these will actually feel to be in, but it’s still all coming together, and as much as the exhibition is about each of these installations it is also about their relationship to each other and the overall culminate experience.

This film gives a sense of some of the things that you might encounter in the New Year at the RA, and what the experience might be like. What will you make of it? What will these installations feel like, how might it alter your perception of architecture?

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

Despite using similar raw materials and geometric forms to Casa Cien (their home and studio), Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Poli feels quite different. Perched on a spectacular piece of land that sits astride a small peninsular in the Pacific Ocean, its placement is the result of very careful consideration.


    Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Poli house, Coliumo, Chile, 2005. Exterior view from the north. Photo © Cristóbal Palma

It is positioned so the slope falls away gently enough to make it feel securely anchored to the ground, but also perched on the edge between land and the expanse of sea. When I first arrived, looking down on it from a distance it felt almost austere, and drew to mind concrete observation lookouts defending against invasion.


    Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Curator Kate Goodwin at Poli house, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

However the cubic form also feels eternal, particularly as you draw closer and discover the lichen growing on its concrete surface.


    Pezo von Ellrichshausen, façade detail of Poli house, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

It feels almost heroic – man and nature, united in ambition. However, the greatest surprise came from spending time within it. To describe its interior as a perimeter space between two walls, containing stairs, service and storage belies its magic. Large windows penetrate the walls and the depth is used to really grab hold of the view and bring it inside. An interior is created that has an expansive character. The walls enclose a volume, not rooms. It thus evokes a feeling of a world neither inside nor out. Light moves through the house like another occupant, bringing warm colour to one corner, bright outlines to another, animating the house on a minute-by-minute basis.


    Early afternoon interior view of Poli house, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts

We sat all afternoon in the house, discussing yet more ideas, which were able to flow and change just as did the light and mood of the space. As I walked away the next morning, looking back down on the house that I’d first seen only the day before, it looked entirely different.

What had at first seemed a definitive object now appeared alive- both in its setting and what I knew it to contain. It reinforced more than ever how a building needs to be experienced, inhabited and spent time with to properly digest, consider and enjoy.


    Sun penetrating the interior of Poli house, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts

Here’s a snippet of some of our meandering afternoon conversation:

Kate: How can we bring to the fore the qualities of architecture: make it – and people – ‘present’ within a gallery space?

Sofia: I think what we’re talking about here is about an interaction. We should generate some sort of interaction between the visitor and this inanimate ‘thing’ that is architecture, and not with a show made by other people, because then architecture just becomes a backdrop. It should be active, but what is the interaction about?

Mauricio: To touch, to smell, to see some details, to walk in a special way… the way you walk around a staircase like here, you’re having a bodily connection with the building; you touch the building; you’re making an effort…

S: Your heart beats faster.

M: Your muscles are different… by forcing someone to have an effect on their body you’re dismissing the possibility of being in a place without doing anything which is what architecture normally does. I think it’s an important definition. Architecture is a structure that you cannot see directly; it’s peripheral to your view. That’s architecture. And the tendency today is to make it the central focus of your attention. When you go to a museum and you see a painting hanging on a wall… that’s the centre focus of my attention. Architecture is not trying to do that, except for maybe a church where you have the altar or specific monuments… but normal architecture is secondary, invisible… or lateral.

S: Good architecture is somehow invisible, but allows for whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible. But it’s true that now as we’re sitting in this space, we’re not directly interacting with the architecture of the building, but it is what is allowing for the condition of the light, and a very nice breeze…


    Sofia and Pezo’s dog enjoying the evening view from Poli house, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts


    Sun setting on the Pacific; interior view of Poli house, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts


    Early morning in Poli house, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Coliumo, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

Early this year I had the pleasure of spending five days with Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo (known simply as Pezo); staying in the house they designed, and talking almost non-stop about architecture and what they might do for this exhibition. It was very special witnessing how they work together. They would sit close, engaged in an intense discussion that would move quickly, building on one another’s ideas, while also questioning their own propositions. As they talked through ideas it was Pezo who would have a pen in hand, drawing as they talked.

I could see how their ethos and approach to architecture was reflected in their buildings. Together they bring an innate understanding of how people will respond and feel in a space and marry it with an absolute belief in an aesthetically pure architecture.

This space is based on something very hard; square openings, square spaces, very rigid but also so soft. So I think whoever goes through it wonders: how is it so diluted and informal when it’s so contained?

I was really struck by how coherent and certain their buildings are. Their own house and studio, Casa Cien, stands upright – almost like a small monument – in a suburb, nestled into the foothills on edge of the industrial town of Concepción. A plinth with tower atop, it is a bold object that is starkly different from all the houses that surround it and is in no way apologetic about the fact.

I asked them how those in the neighbourhood had responded when it was built. I gather people were rather perplexed and unsure to start with, but it has become a landmark and point of curiosity and interest that seems to be making its way into people’s hearts.


    Pezo von Ellrichshausen, exterior view of Cien House, Concepción, Chile. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

It struck me that it stands outside both time and tradition, questioning the relationships of the buildings and locale, asking which came first and what is right.

What’s nice about this house is it’s so rough and everything’s so incomplete. In a way it feels like it was born old.

Pezo Von Ellrichshausen claim they do not “design.” It’s a word they seem to dislike because it suggests over-refinement; a distance from being truly ‘personal’. But they do carefully consider, combining a highly intellectual rationale with an intuitive understanding of the body in a space.

I felt, perhaps because of the repeated square plan, perhaps because they use familiar materials and elements, that their house was clearly legible. But they place them in such a way that they suggest a new way of looking. The apparent simplicity is, in part, what makes walking through their buildings, at moments, unnerving and arresting, while also very beautiful.

Good architecture is somehow invisible, but it allows for whatever is happening in that space to be the very best experience possible.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

In my last post, I discussed how Grafton Architects wanted to explore what ‘being present’ in an architectural space means. But what spaces have been in their minds as they design their interventions to our galleries? Which spaces have awakened their senses?

Le Corbusier Chandigarh : Palais de l’Assemblée 1955 Photographed in 2007, photographer not named © FLC/ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2013.

    Le Corbusier, Chandigarh : Palais de l’Assemblée, 1955. Photographed in 2007, photographer not named. © FLC/ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2013.

One thing they identified is that we become more aware of our surroundings at moments of change – such as crossing a threshold. Light also very distinctly changes a building’s character and atmosphere. Think about how certain spaces vary with the time of day or seasons. Even as you sit in a particular space it changes – a ray of light moving across your desk as you work, or a corner of a room becoming shadowy and moody as dusk approaches.

When visiting the Royal Academy’s galleries they noted the distinctiveness of the top-lit galleries identifying ‘light’ as what they called one of the “meta narratives” of their experience of the spaces. And thus they began to develop their installation for us. But what other spaces have been in their minds as they have done so? Which spaces have awakened their senses?


    Mosque of Córdoba

A key inspiration has been the Palace of the Assembly in Chandigarh, India, by Le Corbusier. “When I entered the main space, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Shelley told me. “It felt both absolutely ancient and absolutely modern, like the mosque in Córdoba in Spain, which has a Christian cathedral wedged inside.

The Chandigarh space is dynamic. There is a gracious and easy sense of movement from ledge to ledge within what actually feels like a piece of landscape. I’d never realised the impact of the crack of light at the junction of the central space and the perimeter offices. It’s a kind of ‘light gutter’ that casts a strong line of light on the concrete soffit. The light is drawn down into the enormous space by slender columns, which become columns of light within what is in fact a dark and moody grand hall.

Their analogy – a building more as a piece of landscape than simple structure – brought to mind my visit to one of their recent works, the new faculty building at Luigi Bocconi University, which is located on a dense urban site in Milan. I was struck by how, despite being unabashedly modern, it seemed wholly appropriate for the site. It was bold enough to make a significant urban statement, but with enough subtleties to make it fit within its surrounds. The building houses offices for over 1,000 professors, five auditoriums, multiple teaching areas and spaces for students to inhabit and enjoy. It’s huge, with a diverse and complex programme – one which Grafton have handled with delicate care.


    Grafton Architects. View of stairs, Auditoria Undercroft, Luigi Bocconi University, Milan, Italy. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

Heading down many metres below the street, large, open volumes connect you to light and the city above; I felt I was discovering some new strata of the city. I recall them talking about their own surprise and delight when they observed how the light moved down through the building and across the various surfaces in a way that surpassed even their own expectations. It was evident they could come up with elegant solutions to complex briefs – a process I’ve now witnessed first-hand.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

“Buildings tell the stories of our lives in built form… We walk through and feel spaces with our whole bodies and our senses, not just with our eyes and with our minds. We are fully involved in the experience; this is what makes us human.”

I think these words from Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell – founding partners of Dublin-based Grafton Architects – show why they were one of the first architects I approached to discuss the ambitions of the exhibition. The quote above is from a fascinating lecture they gave at the Royal Academy in March 2012, on Architecture as the New Geography (you can listen to the whole thing as part of our podcast series).

Their words echoed the central theme of the exhibition. It was an interesting time for Grafton, as they were simultaneously working on their installation for the Venice Architecture Biennale, (which won the Silver Lion Prize). Their first major exhibition project, it challenged them to express their ideas in new ways.

In Venice, they chose to look at the work of Brazilian Architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha and how it might offer insights to their own new university project in Lima. Through large photographs, and beautiful and tactile papier-mâché models, they wove magical connections which suggested as much about ideas of time and architecture as the specifics of the two projects.

Grafton told me at that time:

Fragments, like ruins, allow space for the imagination to enter into play – you don’t give the whole story, so you provide space for the spectator to try to imagine what you are wanting to do, what might be intended.

The user – the spectator – is the ‘secret ingredient’ to architecture. Considered throughout the design, but present only in the finished structure, a building’s users complete it, rather than electricians, glaziers or roofers.

My discussions with Grafton have been some of the most stimulating and rewarding: they have really tackled the challenges I put to them. Our conversations traversed all manner of things, but in this post I wanted to share with you some of the philosophy that Grafton have expressed over the months as their ideas have coalesced. Next time, I’ll show you some of the places and spaces that have inspired their installation.

Your place at the table

What does feeling ‘present’ in a space really mean? Yvonne told me about an evening she and Shelley once spent in Zurich:

We sat at a table that was incredibly long and narrow. It was made from a big tree trunk, so it was rough, but people were closer than normal, and there was a sense of a community along its length. When you come to a table you take off your jacket and sit down, so you are fully present; you have a cup of tea and a conversation, so it’s a shared experience. A table is an amazing platform.

Working session with Grafton Architects. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

    Working session with Grafton Architects. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts.

She went on:

Being present is trying to see the moments of change. It might just be the opening of a door, it might be the smell of brown bread – they say if you want to sell your house, you bake bread when people come and they’re more likely to buy it – it might be other senses too.

We moved on to discuss exhibitions more specifically. Thinking about what they might do in the Royal Academy, Shelley told me:

I would like to start to think about galleries themselves. Very often within an exhibition there is a datum. Perhaps scale. For instance, it would be interesting to think about small things in a big space, or large things in small spaces; or about light; or a sense of movement in section and in plan. I like the idea of taking something which feels static and making it feel fluid, like a woven story, with a feeling of time. How might you take these very classical galleries, and by way of locating pieces, enable people see it differently. One exhibition which does this is the Peter Maerkli gallery in Tessin- where there is no artificial light, no services- if it’s dark outside, its dark inside; or cool, or hot. …. What was annoying today in the galleries was the humming in the background of the building – when you wanted the quiet.

NEXT TIME – Chandigarh and Cordoba: making a space that is ‘absolutely ancient and absolutely modern’.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.

Putting together Sensing Spaces has been a long and continually enlightening journey.

Beginning with a seed of an idea based on the experiential importance of architecture, it has traversed research and conversations, trips to Chile, Berlin and Cheltenham, and rather a lot of time hunched at my desk in Burlington Gardens. From conceiving the exhibition, it has been a thrill to witness its development into something beyond what I was able to imagine.

Some experiences stay with us, recalled and resonating at various times in our lives. Some years ago, I spent an inspirational afternoon with Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect I have long admired. He spoke about his influences, references and his personal recollections on the spaces that have become etched on his mind. He described very evocatively the projects he was working on, creating pictures of them with words rather than his pencil. He described the feel of the surfaces, the smell of the materials he was using. The projects really came alive.

A set of Peter Zumthor’s work by Flickr user mc_vivek

As I walked away I found I was acutely aware of the spaces around me. Of how the light fell on the wide neo-classical staircase. The sensation of worn stone treads as I descended the stairs. The sounds of my footsteps filling the space. I felt present and in that moment; aware of my surroundings; the atmosphere and quality of the architecture. Also more aware of myself; my physical presence and the thoughts and images running through my mind.

It is an experience that has been a provocation to my thinking as a curator. Architecture is the ever-present background to our lives, yet so often we think we either don’t ‘know’ very much about it, or perhaps don’t always consider its impact upon us.

Could an exhibition be a mechanism through which to change this? How might we use the context of an exhibition to do so; the attitude of visitors, movement, psychology and of course the distinctive gallery spaces themselves? What sort of space could make a visitor aware of themselves and the architectural context and environment?


We invited a group of architects to challenge themselves and their discipline to convey the power of architecture within an exhibition context. They each bring a distinct perspective and sensibility to the exhibition project. They come from different cultures, geographies and generations but also share certain sensibilities- particularly how their architecture relates to people, time and place. It is a list which includes well-established and emerging practices: Grafton Architects (Ireland); Diébédo Francis Kéré (Germany/Burkina Faso); Kengo Kuma (Japan); Li Xiaodong (China); Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile); Eduardo Souto de Moura and Álvaro Siza (Portugal).

Though the exhibition is not intended as a survey of their work, there will be the chance ‘meet’ these architects through a 15-minute film shown at the end of the exhibition, where you will hear them talk about their inspirations and see some of their other projects. Our film-maker is currently gathering wonderful footage which will transport you to the far reaches of the world. This material will also be made into 5 minute films looking at each of these architects on our website to accompany the show – you can watch before coming or see afterwards.

The conversations I have with the architects continue to surprise and delight, and the building process throws up new challenges and opportunities daily. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share some of the adventures with you.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy from 25 January – 6 April 2014.