Sensing spaces: Emotional buildings

An exhibition at London’s Royal Academy explores the way architecture makes us feel as well as how it looks. Jonathan Glancey pays it a visit.

A foreshortened Spanish-American timber castle, its spiral stairs winding up to stretches of gilded cornicing beneath a 19th Century iron and glass roof. A Chinese maze formed by hazel twig walls, leading to dead ends and a mysterious enclosed room along paths made of white light masquerading as snow. A darkened and perfumed Japanese room strewn with a net-like structure fabricated from filigree bamboo. What seems to be a Moorish-African arch from some exotic rainforest grotto prickled, oddly, with children’s drinking straws…

These curious structures are highlights from Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, an exhibition curated by the Royal Academy of Arts’ Kate Goodwin in the London institution’s main galleries.

The exhibition is designed by a small number of architects from around the world who share a common interest in trying to shape buildings that appeal to all our senses, and not just to the informed eye. Goodwin’s show is an attempt to break fresh ground, especially for younger audiences who have been brought up to experience architecture increasingly through images seen on computer screens, making instant judgements based first and foremost on looks.

As this is like judging a person’s qualities on the way they look – a supermodel, celebrity singer or actor must de facto be somehow superior to anyone of average height, weight and looks − Goodwin’s own instinct has surely been right. We need to experience architecture by sensing its spaces, listening to it, touching it and even sitting quietly inside buildings with our eyes closed, but our minds’ eyes wide open.

“So, Sensing Spaces is about how architecture confronts us and communicates with us on an emotional and psychological as well as visual and intellectual level”, says Goodwin, who studied architecture in her native Australia and has been with the RA since 2003. “It’s about visitors experiencing real spaces rather than staring at iconic images of famous buildings. So there are no models of buildings, no photographs or drawings, but real spaces created for these big galleries.”

Goodwin has sought her architects widely. The timber castle is by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichhausen who founded their studio in Concepcion, Chile, in 2002. Since then, they have designed powerful, elemental concrete houses, like the Poli House overlooking the sea on the Coliumo Peninsula that is at once as ancient as the hills in the way it feels and sits in the landscape and as modern as you want it to be. Their own house and studio overlooking the rooftops of Concepcion resembles a tower, a miniature castle of their own.

The maze is by Li Xiaodong, a Chinese architect, whose exquisite timber and glass library veiled in a screen of the sticks local villagers collect for firewood in and around Huairou, some two hours drive from Beijing, has drawn visitors around the world since it was opened in 2011.

The perfumed room is the work of Tokyo’s Kengo Kuma. And, Diebedo Francis Kere, from Burkina Faso is the German-trained architect responsible for the grotto-like archway. Kere continues to work in West Africa; he won the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the sensitive primary school he designed in his own village, Gando.

The ideas expressed through these structures have been explored over the years in books like Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, first published in Japan in 1933 and The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture of the Senses [1996] by the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasma. They were discussed in three conferences − Sustaining Identity – sponsored by Arup Associates, a firm of architects with a global reach, and held at the V&A in recent years, in which Pallasma and some of the RA’s exhibitors took part. And, they have been investigated on celluloid, too, notably by Stanley Kubrick − 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining − and David Lynch in films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Haunting houses

Film has allowed directors with an architectural eye to play with sets that can transform the way we experience buildings and the spaces within and around them. David Lynch has his characters disappearing into other rooms, corridors, uncertain spaces bathed in mysterious and sometimes disturbing light as if they are dissipating into some kind of half-lit gloaming rather than simply walking out of shot. The effect is unsettling, but very much like the sensation you can feel walking through an unlit cathedral in the evening when the door are bolted and the last candle has been blown out.

Kubrick has challenged us with a horror film − The Shining − filmed in intensely brightly lit spaces, indoors and out, turning our expectations upside down: surely all horror films are the stuff of twilight, darkness and deep shadows? And, yet, the experience of a room − especially a big public room − lit by remorseless fluorescent light can be very unsettling indeed.

The RA’s, then, is a spirited attempt to engage visitors with the idea that architecture is truly an all-embracing art: even cinematic and purposelessly theatrical. Perhaps, though − having won its audience’s interest, it could guide those hungry to experience more to buildings and spaces around the world where sensory experiences can be exquisite, and even overwhelming: to Bramante’s domed tempietto shoehorned into a courtyard of Rome’s San Pietro in Montorio; the underside of Guarino Guarini’s dome of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Turin; the ‘access tube’ corridors of Eero Saarinen’s recently closed TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK Airport… the list is as endless as the story of architecture is long.

Mind over matter

I mention these particular buildings and spaces, because they demonstrate the power of architecture to affect our emotions in remarkable ways. You do not expect to find one of the most influential, and serene, of all Italian Renaissance buildings squeezed into a Roman courtyard as if it has been packed into a box. And walking into that courtyard is like undoing a box − a present − and uncovering a pleasant if somehow unsettling surprise.

Guarini’s Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Turin seems so modest from the outside, and yet within its stone wrappings is not just one the Catholic church’s most precious and mysterious relics – the cloths that Jesus was supposedly wrapped in after his crucifixion – but one of the most awe-inspiring structures ever built: a dome of intoxicating geometry and intense beauty that is architecture’s equivalent, perhaps, of Bernini’s highly charged baroque sculpture, the Ecstasy of St Theresa.

As for Saarinen’s airport corridors, here is proof – if this was ever needed – that modern architects have been able to shape spaces, to reimagine spaces, that, while working on a functional level, heighten our experience of a given building. Here, the architect created a feeling − much admired by Stanley Kubrick − that took 1950s air travel into the Space Age even before a rocket had ever lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

Lifting off from the floor of the great central space of the Mole Atonelliana  a sensationally huge 19th Century synagogue in Turin, and since 2000 the Museo Nazionale de Cinema − must surely be one of the most dramatic of all spatial experiences to be enjoyed, and even feared, within a building of architectural distinction. The elevator is pulled up through this voluminous space, with those riding it feeling a sense of agoraphobia. As it rises uncomfortably high, it enters the space of the vast dome above.

Now the curved walls of the dome appear to close in on the tiny elevator. But, just before those trembling inside – with a mix of fear and delight – feel they are to be crushed by these coffered walls as they meet at the top of the underside of the dome, the elevator vanishes through an aperture at its very centre, and disappears into Lynchian darkness. Seconds later, it disgorges those who have dared to ride it onto the balustrades of this theatrical building, and to commanding views of a great Baroque city.

Sensing Spaces cannot offer experiences quite like these, yet it will have succeeded if it offers a hint of a world of architecture that might excite the senses of anyone adventurous enough to look afresh at buildings around them, to reimagine architecture for themselves.

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