Architecture exhibitions typically struggle to deal with the problem of the absent object. When you can’t actually fit the main exhibit inside the gallery space it’s tempting to revert to the default option of the all-too-familiar ‘book-on-the-wall’. In other areas, museums have been keen to move away from this predominantly text-based model, preferring instead to reassert the importance of the bodily encounter with the sheer brute presence of material objects . For architectural curators this presents a challenge, but there are at least a couple of alternatives that try to dance around this empty centre: the first could be referred to as the ‘exhibition as salvage-yard’, which involves bringing together full-size fragments of buildings rescued from demolition sites or preservation projects; the other is the gallery as office, studio or workshop, which presents architecture as design-in-progress, filling in the back-story behind the building itself by showing us the context in which it was conceived and developed. The limitations of these two approaches involve both spatial and temporal gaps: while they both neglect the immersive quality of the embodied experience of architectural space, one celebrates the time before construction and the other the time after demolition.
Refreshingly, in the Sensing Spaces exhibition, Royal Academy curator Kate Goodwin has avoided most of these limitations, by opting instead for a series of full-size architectural experiences purpose designed for the Burlington House galleries. While the show is effectively seven different exhibitions, this is both a strength and a weakness of the project, with each space designed by a different architect within a very loose overarching brief. They are linked only by the vaguest notion of an emphasis on sensory experience, and there is little to tie the different installations together into any sort of coherent whole. On the plus side, within the galleries immersive experience is predominant throughout and interpretive text panels have been deliberately kept to a minimum, aside from the most basic introductory captions. This is important as it invites the visitor just to wander around in the spaces without too many preconceptions about what they should be experiencing. Some of the installations like Kengo Kuma’s lacy bamboo pyramids and Li Xiaodong’s woodland labyrinth play successfully with atmospheric qualities such as light, sound and scent – in both cases the low light levels encourage a heightening of non-visual sensory awareness.
The most powerful architectural propositions are the ones that engage directly with the fabric of the building, providing new experiences of the Royal Academy galleries by drawing attention to what are normally seen as background elements. The Chilean practice Pezo von Ellrichshausen have done this most directly, by building a monumental timber platform that lifts the viewer up to cornice level. Whether climbing quickly through the warming air by one of the spiral stairs housed in the structure’s legs, or taking the more leisurely and rhythmic stroll up the gentle ramp hidden behind them, the view from the top is surprisingly dramatic, combining elements of the mundane and the surreal. On one level, it’s simply the view that the cleaners would get from a cherry-picker while changing a light-bulb, but at the same time the platform creates a kind of artificial ground level by the way it cuts off the view of the gallery below – the juxtaposition of plain softwood balustrade and ornate gilded cornices recalls Le Corbusier’s famous roof terrace of the Beistegui apartment from the early 1930s.
Balancing this piece, at the opposite end of the building’s central axis, is another monumental insertion that likewise celebrates the possibilities of the existing space. Dublin-based Grafton Architects have created a room-within-a-room by suspending a ‘box of light’ within the upper part of the gallery, visually massive yet curiously weightless as it hovers just 2.5 metres above the floor. It’s actually more a ‘box-of-dark’, as it blocks out most of the incoming daylight, but then plays with secondary cut-outs that allow filtered light to seep in at the corners. Reminiscent of a number of Steven Holl buildings, and even some of the early trompe l’oeil installations by American artist James Turrell, this piece successfully combines the rarefied subtlety of a gallery installation with a relatively realistic piece of everyday architecture.
Taken together, the overall strength of the show lies in the way it draws attention to the often overlooked qualities of ‘background architecture’, overcoming one of the paradoxes of bringing these qualities into the foreground and inviting a level of scrutiny it may not always merit. The exhibition also benefits from some excellent supporting material including a 20-minute video and a nicely illustrated book, although the rather disappointing catalogue essay by Philip Ursprung bears only a tenuous connection to the content of the current show. The Royal Academy website also contains useful information on each of the design teams involved.
“Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined”, exhibition held at the Royal Academy, London from 25th January to 6th April 2014. Curated by Kate Goodwin.
 Dudley, S. (ed.), Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.