Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined

Art, Architecture
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(10user reviews)
Sensing Spaces at the RA (Installation view of 'Blue Pavilion' by Pezo von Ellrichshausen.)
Installation view of 'Blue Pavilion' by Pezo von Ellrichshausen.Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.
Sensing Spaces at the RA (Installation by Kengo Kuma)
Installation by Kengo KumaPhoto © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.
Sensing Spaces at the RA (Installation by Diébédo Francis Kéré)
Installation by Diébédo Francis KéréPhoto © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.
Sensing Spaces at the RA (Installation by Grafton Architects)
Installation by Grafton ArchitectsPhoto © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photography: James Harris.
Sensing Spaces at the RA (Installation by Grafton Architects.                                )
Installation by Grafton Architects. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014. Photo: James Harris.

This experimental show proves there’s more to architecture than blueprints, detailed models and an abundance of health-and-safety red tape. Kate Goodwin, the Royal Academy’s architecture curator has invited seven contemporary architectural firms from across the globe to transform not just the RA’s galleries but also our perception of space. We often allow our daily existence to drown out what’s actually going on around us, letting the monotony of habitual practice blinker the potential for unexpected experience in our built environment. 

Luckily there’ll be no chance of ignoring your surroundings in this exhibition as the architects Goodwin has chosen all dazzle the senses with their immersive site-specific installations.

The Chilean-based husband-and-wife duo behind Pezo von Ellrichshausen will transport you back to your childhood with their gigantic wooden installation. Part playground, part monument, ‘Blue Pavilion’ is a curious structure. Hidden within its four columns are spiral staircases that lead you up to a viewing platform for a rare perspective of the nineteenth-century interior. Here you get up close and personal with the gallery’s cornice decorated with gilded angels before travelling back down to ground level via a ramp.

From behind the curtains where Kengo Kuma’s work waits to amaze you, comes a faint inviting aroma. As you venture into the darkened space, you’re struck by a warm woody essence and wispy forms. Here your nose and eyes must do the work of your hands, as you navigate your way around warped bamboo to another room, where you’ll encounter a new fragrance. Inspired by the traditional Japanese ceremony kodo, Kuma’s nasal contest gives a whole new meaning to potpourri, with its sweet smell of unexpected revelation.

The West African architect Francis Kéré likes to work with materials typical to the area he builds in. For his double-ended pavilion that links two grand galleries, he’s used a honeycomb plastic that’s an integral part of London construction. Under the domes you can take stock of the show in the seating area and even get involved, like any good worker bee, by inserting coloured straws into the holes of this synthetic sanctuary.

Using a wealth of materials, the main galleries are altered by these architectural interventions that ooze dynamism and provide an alternative approach to typical customs. Hopefully the experience will stimulate your senses to realise there’s always more to corridors, lighting and the incomprehensible entity of space.

Freire Barnes

See our guide to Sensing Spaces here.

Architects featured: Grafton Architects, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Kengo Kuma, Li Xiaodong, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Eduardo Souto de Mouro and Alvara Siza.


Average User Rating

4.2 / 5

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A brilliant exhibition, a real sensory and immersive experience, and just a pleasure to walk around. There's something very soothing and satisfying about the spaces, they excite a great sense of childlike wonder as you move through each room, able to touch, smell and add to the architecture. Definitely worth a visit.

The new show at the Royal Academy is like a science fiction view of a future art gallery. Old buildings still exist but they’re immaculate, and probably covered in a CentreParks-style glass dome to keep them that way. All the people are smiling and contented because disease, hunger and money have all been eradicated. And the content is a bit nondescript but still very exciting. The trouble with science fiction is all the unanswered questions. You can only suspend your disbelief for so long before you start to get a bit restless. Sensing Spaces presents a similar quandary: just what is the point of it? The website and supporting literature suggests an attempt to ‘evoke the experience and power of architecture in a traditional gallery environment’. That’s clear, then. It’s not that this show isn’t enjoyable - it is. It’s just that, without a clearly-defined aim at the beginning, we’re left wondering if it’s all worth it at the end. There are many things that make this a brilliant exhibition though. The curators have adopted an extreme minimalist aesthetic. Compared to the hideous cacophony that is the Summer Exhibition, and the jumble-sale atmosphere of the recent Richard Rogers retrospective, this is most welcome. A byproduct of this simplicity is a rare chance to appreciate the Academy’s own wonderful architecture without distraction. The paired-back approach and generous use of white space gives a wonderful sense of peace and tranquility. There is room to move about the gallery, and the atmosphere is wonderfully calm, positive and even nurturing. This is an ambitious show. In another departure for the RA, it is designed to be accessible. You can touch almost everything, and several of the works can be climbed on or walked through. Photography and social sharing is actively encouraged, extending the experience beyond the exclusive Academy doors. It’s great for kids and teens. Most of the pieces are designed to be touched. One particularly tactile piece features giant, coloured drinking straws you’re encouraged to insert into the structure, or even steal if you’re so inclined. Try doing that at the National Gallery. There is a refreshing absence of text and interpretation. Each room simply features the name of the architect and the work, what it’s made of and where it’s from, and a very short quote explaining the architect’s thoughts on design. Instead of being told what to think and feel, you’re left to make of each piece what you will. It’s not quite perfect, though. The utopian vision isn’t quite realised, for the following reasons. It’s expensive. An adult ticket is £15.50, and it would cost a family of four £43 to visit. While the organisers encourage you to take your time to sit and reflect (and provide ample facilities to do so), you could get round in half an hour. So this could be quite an expensive trip. The lack of interpretation goes both ways. While many will find this innovative, others will grumble about not being told more about each item and the exhibition over all. In particular, one might like to know what brief the architects were given. One might also ask how they were chosen, and why no British architects took part. The RA could perhaps have done more to champion British firms using British materials. Much like Thomas Heatherwick’s brilliant UK Pavilion at the Beijing Expo, Sensing Spaces is daringly simple. It doesn’t try to do everything one might expect, like reviewing every tool, trend and technique used in modern architecture. Instead it just does a few things very, very well. This won’t be to everyone’s taste, and some will feel shortchanged, but the Royal Academy’s brave approach is to be commended. For more of the latest art news and reviews, check out

This seemed pointless. I already knew that boundaries define space and that lighting affects our experience of buildings; is there anyone educated beyond kindergarten that doesn't? To the architects who put this together: don't give up your day jobs.

Went to a special preview of this exhibition last night. There are 7 different areas with one architect having made a design for each area. It is fascinating as their ideas are so different, using different materials. There is also an interactive element in that you can climb the wooden tower or add your own touch to the tower of coloured straws. Some exhibits you needed to view at a certain angle to be able to fully appreciate them. I thought there was a metal arch , like you get in airports just sitting in one room, but when viewing from another side, I found it was a clever 'reflection' of the door frame. We even had a debate on the way out as to whether part of the last exhibit had fallen over, or whether it was purposely like that! If you like something a bit more than just paintings, it is well worth a look. I believe that there are also other galleries there if you go during the day.

Very interesting exhibtion, different to what you would normally see in the Royal Academy - you can look, touch and smell the different exhibits, and if you feel like it hula hoop with straws! It is one you may want to visit more than once as it will come across differently in different lights. Ipads are available to take round with you and there is also a film at the end - it may be worth checking this out first, or walking back round once you have seen this as you may look at the exhibits differently onces you have heard the architects thoughts behind the pieces.

Wonderful, highly recommended! Was lucky enough to go to a preview with a curator's talk, so got the benefit of seeing it without large crowds present, which I'm happy about as I'm sure this will be a popular one! It was fantastic to see the various interpretation of the space by the architects. It was also great to be in an exhibition where not only are you allowed, but actively encouraged to touch things, and in one case even add your own mark! The entire show is a photographer's dream, and I'm planning another visit in daylight to see what difference the light coming through the glass ceiling windows will make. And a little tip: definitely make sure you climb to the top of the Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation, as you'll never get a chance to see the beautiful ornate ceiling of the Royal Academy from this close again!

Not an architecture exhibition like that at Summer exhibition with scale models and drawings but a series of installations, interactions with the rooms at RA. Refreshing to see walls devoid of paintings and the international variety of the designers selected. The final room is a film with the architects designing their feelings about space and light as well as completed projects both here and in their own countries. To amplify ones experience here I would recommend seeing the film first, exit through the gift shop, to reach it, then wandering through the rooms. After seeing the film I retraced my steps. Very worth seeing and then checking out dedicated website.