The Royal Academy Wants You to Finish This Artwork

Using straws, bamboo, lights, scents, and other experimental materials, six architects have transformed London’s Royal Academy, making visitors stop and think about their surroundings.

Royal Academy of Arts, London/James Harris/Pezo von Ellrichshausen

How often do you look up at the facades looming overhead as you saunter down the street? When you visit an art exhibition, do you ever pause to consider the walls that support the pictures proudly hanging in their frames? Architecture is often merely a backdrop, a blank canvas on which to display other works. But a new show at London’s Royal Academy of Art, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, hopes to revolutionize our appreciation of the structures around us.

Seven architects from six countries around the world were commissioned to create large-scale installations in the Main Galleries of the Royal Academy. The brief? To awaken our senses to the essential architectural interactions and spaces that exist all around, to engage visitors through proportion, materials, and light. Part demonstration, part experiment, the possibilities were endless.

The resulting works reflect the disparate cultures, generations, and geographies of the designers…and they have boldly transformed the space. The Main Galleries were added to Burlington House, the RA’s home on London’s Piccadilly, in 1867. Grand in scale, richly decorated, and perfectly measured and aligned, the rooms follow the Beaux-Arts tradition and Neoclassical style popular at the time. They are the epitome of old-school rationality and refinement—or at least they were until now. Sensing Spaces has given the classical language of the RA’s architecture an edgy, contemporary twist. What it hopes to give the viewer, who is invited to explore, touch, climb, and contemplate, is a whole new sensory experience of both structures and space.

The transformation begins even before you step foot in the town-palace and ascend its grand stairway. Turn off bustling Piccadilly into the Annenberg courtyard, and you find the formerly familiar retreat has been transformed by the work of Álvaro Siza, who was born in Matosinho, Portugal. Three reinforced concrete columns pigmented with canary yellow (offering a warm welcome on a chilly day) stand out in their pallid surroundings. The first lies on the ground, its top missing; the second stands upright, still topless; the third also stands, top now firmly in place. Together they draw the viewer’s attention to the courtyard and to themselves. Siza spoke to curator Kate Goodwin (her online blog features interviews with the exhibition’s complete cast) about continuity: rather than inventing something new, he believes in building on something that already exists. His three columns do just that in the courtyard. Though contemporary abstract figures, their form is a classical nod to the rustication, porticos, and fixed columns of the façade of Burlington House.

The Royal Academy’s octagonal Central Hall lies on an axis with the exterior courtyard and acts as a launching pad to the individual installations. Each visitor is invited to create his or her own route through the galleries—there is no prescribed path. The tour starts with a difficult choice: which of the three arched doorways will you choose? After careful consideration—eeny, meeny, miny, moe—I turn left.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Blue Pavilion waits beyond the first arch I choose. Founded in 2002 by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen in Concepción, Chile, the firm operates on a theory of interaction. In their designated room in the RA, a vast wooden structure takes up exactly half the space. Made of a box supported on four cylindrical legs, created out of untreated pine board, and stretching up to the sky (this work, like a number of those in the exhibition, is situated under a glass roof and bathed in natural light), it’s a tree-house to the extreme. Wooden stools are scattered around it, inviting visitors to take their seats. But here, the audience is part of the show. Don’t be fooled by the structure’s apparent simplicity: within each cylindrical leg is a spiral staircase chaperoned by a steel handrail, and opening onto a deck. The height of the lookout’s wooden fence means that staying below is not an option. Instead, viewers are encouraged to climb the structure and cloud-watch through the glass roof above, to admire up close the twists and turns of the late 19th-century gold foliate decoration on the borders of the gallery walls. Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s installation allows visitors to reconsider the meanings of structure and space by ascending into a house in the sky.

After coming back down to earth, cross the threshold into the adjoining room and encounter part one of the installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura, native of Porto, Portugal. As a young architect, Souto de Moura was a pupil and protégée of Álvaro Siza; Goodwin invited the old friends to work in tandem—with the option either to create a joint installation or two independent ones which could, nonetheless, be seen as a pair. They chose to go their separate ways. Souto de Moura created replicas of two of the RA’s arched doorway frames. Situated as if set on hinges at the rooms’ thresholds, these duplicate structures are in fact firmly rooted to the ground. The frames have a highly polished and silky finish, yet their resolute monumentality (they are made out of ultra-high performance, reinforced concrete) instills them with age. Like Souza’s columns, at once classical and current, the cutting-edge computer software used in the creation of Souto de Moura’s door cases means that they point towards the future even as their forms look to the past.

Pull aside the black curtain leading into the next room, and you will see the antithesis of monumental. Kengo Kuma—who designed the interior of nearby sushi haven, Sake No Hana in 2007—creates what he calls “weak architecture.” Kuma, who is from Kanagawa, Japan, sees buildings as subservient to nature; instead of focusing on forms, his interest lies in the empty spaces between. Kuma’s is the only installation that forbids touching—enter his domain, and immediately you understand why. An array of whittled bamboo sticks, each four millimeters in diameter, makes up the two-room installation. Each spindly stick is joined to its neighbor at top and bottom; the room is empty save for the cobweb-like structure, a complex matrix that delicately suggests a delineation of space. Here, more than anywhere else, Sensing Spaces awakens our senses. The rooms are cold and the bamboo sticks are infused with aromas; each room exudes a different Japanese scent.

Somewhat similar to Kuma’s fragrant bamboo structure, but instead begging visitor interaction, Francis Diébédo Kéré’s exhibit consists of 550,000 multicolored straws. Kéré’s installation has the appearance of an elongated, jagged igloo: 1,867 uniquely connected polypropylene honeycomb panels make up the white tunnel he has created though two of the Main Galleries’ rooms. Characteristically engaging and experimental, Kéré, who hails from Gando in Burkina Faso, invites viewers to complete his creation—to transform the white igloo-like shelter into a colorful porcupine-like being by inserting the bright plastic straws. In his interview with Goodwin, Kéré spoke about the positive effect of involving an audience in a work: “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.” Indeed, there were a number of smiling faces—looks of achievement almost—when passers by managed to poke their bendy straws through the pesky honeycomb holes.

The only installation for which there is strictly one way in and one way out is that created by Li Xiaodong, from China. Xiaodong’s work is different from those of the other architects, because it isn’t seen or experienced as an object in a space. Instead, it’s an extension of the sequential experience of passing from room to room when visiting the entire exhibition; it adds an unexpected maze to an otherwise recognizable route. Hazel sticks form the timber frames that map the installation’s narrow passageways; LED lights shine through the acrylic panels on its floor and provide a helping hand, some guidance in the dark. Xiaodong explained to Goodwin that, for a space to become a satisfying physical experience, an architect must ensure the visitor has room to imagine. The maze ends in an expansive Zen garden, complete with a pebble pool-pit and a vast mirror along one wall. (Let’s hope Xiaodong’s pebbles don’t meet the same fate as Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds that temporarily reigned in the Turbine Hall at the Tate—until they were deemed a health hazard). A disorienting journey ends in quiet contemplation.

Finally (or firstly—remember, there’s no prescribed path), comes the work of Grafton Architects, founded in Dublin in 1978 by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell. As you emerge from Xiaodong’s nighttime forest walk into Grafton’s space, you’re struck by the practice’s choice of primary material—bright light. Along one wall is a place to rest, welcoming with its white surface as smooth as marble; here we have yet another Classical nod—it brings to mind the public benches that skirt Renaissance Italian palazzos. Take a seat and read the quote from one of the Grafton team stamped on the opposite wall: “There is a sense of pleasure in moving from darkness to light or vice versa because as human beings we’re cyclical. How light reflects and how light is contained is the stuff of architecture.” Like the majority of installations, the Grafton exhibit is two-fold: the first is an exploration of lightness, the second deals with darkness and weight. Both rooms feature a series of suspended surfaces—wood and steel forms covered with calico, plaster, and emulsion paint that reshape the space; hidden overhead lighting subtly dims and brightens, balancing and complicating the gallery’s natural light.

A brief film by Candida Richardson rounds off the exhibition. Pick a pew within the auditorium, cocooned in a mosquito-net-like space, and spend a quarter of an hour getting to know the architects a little better. Their challenge was to give a new perspective on architecture through different structures, textures, lighting, scents, and colors. Have they succeeded? That’s for you to decide. What’s certain is that the Royal Academy has been transformed: its architecture has been activated, its formerly familiar setting given a fresh and exciting face.

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Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is on show at London’s Royal Academy of Art from January 25 until April 6