Neo-phenomenology or performing architecture?

By | Art & Design
Architect Alvaro Siza Photo@Chiara Porcu

Announced by Time Out as one of the most exciting shows of 2014, “Sensing Spaces: Architecture reimagined” at the Royal Academy of Arts is an architectural exhibition organized by the institution which has already explored this genre with previous successful shows, from “New Architecture – Foster, Rogers, Stirling” (1986) to the more recent “Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out”(2013).

The exhibition, which will be open from the 25th of January to the 6th of April, has called seven architectural firms with similar theoretical views and approaches to design, to produce site-specific installations in the main galleries of the Royal Academy.

As the title of the exhibition declares, both the choice of the designers called to participate and the design of the installations emphasise the experience and perception of space by the user, and especially focus on his/her sensory experience. Each firm has highlighted this aspect in different ways focusing either on visual, olfactory, touch or sound experiences. In other words the architects were called to talk about (what is) architecture and its essential elements through the design of these experiences for the visitors.

Concept image of environment by Kengo Kuma, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. © Kengo Kuma

Concept image of environment by Kengo Kuma, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. © Kengo Kuma

The seven international firms chosen for this task are 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). Although operating in different geographical and cultural contexts (and partly chosen for such reason), these firms have in common a humanist design methodology which emphasizes concepts of place and subjectivity.

From the East to the West these architects all engage in the production of space based on these principles; they incorporate the collective memory of places and cultures resembling vernacular forms and paying particular attention to the use of materials and light. In other words, combining traditional and contemporary construction techniques the results achieved by these firms seem to incorporate the principles of critical regionalism.

Concept image of environment by Li Xiaodong,
commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, detail. © Li Xiaodong

That said, the agenda behind the show is explicit. If on one hand it re-launches and supports phenomenology in architecture (both as historical reading and design approach) on the other hand it also highlights how the discipline of architecture has overcome means of representation — including digital animation and renderings — to go back to the “real” or “authentic” experience of space in the attempt of bridging that gap that always separated architects from their objects of production (differently from artists architects produce drawings rather than the actual objects they design and it is always through that graphic media that they reconnect to the real product). As a result though, the exhibition program reduces architects to producers of experiences (nearly entertainment?) and users into consumers of those. Pezo von Ellrichshausen will challenge our sense of perspective; Kuma, inspired by the Ko-Do Japanese smell ceremony, will test our olfactory sense while Kéré, will encourage us to interact with the installation’s fabric working on the sense of touch.

In support of the installations experience, a specially made film will allow the visitors to “meet” the architects, as the institution declares. The film will show interviews with the designers and will offer a virtual journey through the firms most successful projects.

The visitors will also be encouraged to interact and exchange their architectural experiences online through the platform offered by the institution on a specifically dedicated section of the website. A catalogue will also be published with introduction by curator Kate Goodwin, an essay by Philip Ursprung and interviews with the architects.

If the visitor as subject is the real protagonist of this show, likewise the user is the protagonist of the architectural projects of these firms. How can people’s experience of space like the ones proposed by the exhibition shape architectural discourse and practice?


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