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  • Huw Meredydd Owen

Sensing Spaces

However you define art, making it involves risk, something that is beaten out of architects from their very beginnings. So does that mean that architects cannot be artists? You could argue that architects shy away from putting their heads on the block, because of the involvement of a client and, lets be clear, a client is not usually a patron, and is rarely uninvolved in the creative process. And then there is the brief, which is, in essence, a version of three dimensional chess. So what if an architect were approached by a patron with a brief simply to interpret space? Can the architect rise above a careerful of self-censorship and self-imposed restraint?

The recent exhibition at the Royal Academy in London “Sensing Spaces” brought together a number of extraordinary architects and invited them to use the galleries “and test themselves and their discipline by creating unique spaces for visitors to experience”. Their aim was to explore the “interaction between three factors: the nature of physical spaces, our perception of them and their evocative power”.

The series of spaces are grand, and processional, tall and toplit with elaborate but not overpowering decoration at the peripheries. The architects – Grafton Architects, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Kengo Kuma, Li Xiaodong, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Alvaro Siza, and Eduardo Souto de Moura – have responded in different ways, placing objects in the space, controlling light, adding scent, but in all cases, directly or indirectly, affecting the way in which the visitor negotiates the space.

The closest to a conventional building is Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s great four-legged tower built within one of the larger rooms. At first glance – the visitor approaches from one end through a grand doorway, and sees the tower filling the space at the other – it is very orthogonal and symmetrical, but then so is the space. It seems to be a statement of power in rough timber to contrast with the finery of its context, a play on volumes and an evocation of those elemental building blocks so beloved of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother. But then, delightfully, the four legs turn out to be spiral staircases, and the large box on top turns out to be a platform, and your perception of the space is transformed, coming nose to nose with the gold leafed angels of the entablature near the ceiling. The clear form within the space gives a context for the action invited by the stairs and (the ramp at the rear). The whole piece is aimed at invoking a series of responses from the visitor, rather than a more self-referential exposition of plastic form.

Other works relate more closely to more conventional installation pieces, where particular or more focussed relationships are explored, still within an architectural purview, whether the scent of wood, the constriction of a doorway, or even the deterministic labyrinth that leads to a mirrored zen garden.

Grafton Architect’s exploration of the effect of modulating the space within the gallery was the implementation of a range architectural skills manipulating the visitor’s relationship to mass, form, surface, light, texture, colour and expectation. The used planes and volumes suspended from the suspended ceiling, creating interlinked spaces defined by their height and by the light from above, but not by their plans t the floor, allowing the original space to be read as part of the wider whole. In one way the installation avoids the issue of ‘meaning’ but invokes one of mankind’s most deeply embedded senses and oldest intellectual concept – ‘place’.

Making has a different meaning for architects, where the fabrication is made by others, and where there is a great deal of emphasis on getting the process right. The best architecture is subtle – invisible, even – and architects are often accused of being overprotective of their work. That, though, is a discipline that ensures that the vision can be made real – along the way the Barbarians snipe and peck, knock bits off, and tear away great chunks.

Two architects that have a lifetime of practice that moves seamlessly between conventional buildings and art are Eduardo Souto de Moura and Alvaro Siza, and their contributions to the exhibition reveal their respective care for – and control of – detail. Eduardo Souto de Moura has cast the finely carved woodwork of the linings of two archways leading into two different rooms, which have then been placed inside the space at an angle, denying the symmetry, and denying the architectural expectation. A use of intellectual space – intervening in our learned experience of using ‘place’.

Alvaro Siza has taken this further in exploring a formal relationship with the architectural decoration of the front of Burlington House. His work repeats but reworks elements from the facade – wither object or relationship. The eye for detail, here, though, is at a level that is too fine for most of us to see without it being pointed out. Advanced level stuff.

So how does risk appear in our appreciation of the architects’ efforts. In one sense, the architects on show are already used to venturing beyond the realms of conventional building design. The fact that it is all very neat, tidy and concise, though, illuminates the architect’s usual approach to ordering space and producing permanent solutions – this is not stage set design (all front and no back), after all, and architects cannot just be expected to tack things in place for the short term. Heaven forbid.

It was very illustrative, then to contrast this exhibition with a visit the same day to Tate Britain to see Phyllida Barlow‘s installation in the great central space. Equally architectural in scale this assemblage was an enthusiastic orgy of tacking and propping; timber joists, battens, studding, noggins, with ply, paper, board and rope.; placemaking and drama – a whole lot of front and not so much behind. WISIWYG – or was it? I sensed a certain central symmetry in the major structural elements and a wilful anti-symmetry in the secondary structure. When does a pile of ‘stuff’ become an installation? When does an installation become architecture? The effect was of a careful layering of space, of relationship between component spaces and of reaching up, up and away into the void. Exuberant and with a certain pizzazz, it carried plenty of associations and suggestive parallels. Similar in nature, in many ways, to Grafton Architects’ aim of modulating the void at the RA, but undermined, somewhat by its artifice. Was it more than a stage set of limited duration? Yes, but you don’t expect artists to build monumental edifices. Heaven forbid.

The evidence of risk by the architects was multivalency - meticulous as ever in their technical results - and in the balance of artifice and spontaneity by the artist. Both, though, speaking different dialects of a language of place. The telling experience and lasting impact is the kissing of two disciplines, and their respective uncovering – and sharing – of the sense of ‘place’. The overlap conspired to explore the void – physical and cerebral – like a good kiss should.

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