Sensing Spaces

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Having attended the bloggers’ private view of the new Sensing Spaces exhibition – or rather, experience – at the Royal Academy, I thought I should summarise some thinking about it.

Much of what sparked my interest in cities centres on the experience of space and place – how it affects us emotionally and psychologically. Since then I have become more of a promoter of social urbanism and inclusive cities, but it all began with the notion of experience. Sensing Spaces, therefore, allured me in to its concept, prompting associations of psychogeography and installation art (my long ago academic past…). I believe certain spaces take on the power to induce quite potent responses, sensations and feelings. In cities, this can help make a place magical, inspiring, calming – or oppressive, anxious or even frightening. It can connect us more strongly to the environment of which we are part.

Whilst my interest in this tends more towards urban everyday spaces, I was curious to see how a blend of architecture and installation art in galleries drenched in history could play in to this narrative. I should start by saying: it is a hugely enjoyable exhibition, one that I would encourage anyone to go to – I am delighted the Royal Academy are opening themselves up to new types of shows and creative explorations. But in those galleries I could not quite recreate the spatial experience and feelings that ‘real’ urban places or architectural spaces give. Engaging with senses such as vision, smell and touch (as well as a certain sense of ‘presence’) in places that have life, history and purpose create quite arresting feelings, whether positive or negative. This, of course, is the basis of environmental psychology – but let this not be confused with spatial or architectural determinism.

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Saying this, the architectural installations were engaging and fun – such as an interactive piece I decided to call a ‘Cathedral of Straws’ by Diébédo Francis Kéré. They were also enchanting – Kengo Kuma’s delicate wooden structures in darkened rooms very powerfully played with sensory experience (the scent of hinoki wood was addictive). Grafton Architects’ piece used the transition from light to dark in a mesmerising yet subtle way, set off against the heavy and physical presence of their built intervention. But whilst that piece would have been immersively affective had it been in a closed off room, it suffered from having a path of gallery-goers intersect the experience. As I explored all of the installations, I felt the show was somewhat bound by its architectural basis: artists such as James Turrell produce incredible, transportative spatial encounters that I would have loved to see included.

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Despite the enjoyment and enchantment, I found myself craving meaning; this was somewhat satiated by Diébédo Francis Kéré’s printed quotes on the wall, which deserve to be transcribed:

‘I believe it is important to engage people in the process of building so they have an investment in what is developed. Through thinking and working together people find that the built object becomes part of a bonding experience.’

And:

‘For me, architecture is primarily about people, about asking questions such as: who is the user? what is going to happen here? how can I respond to the users’ needs?’

It is within this thinking where the real potency emerges: the sense of space is linked in to social experience and wellbeing – how can we harness what we learn from these explorations to better build and maintain spaces for people? How can we involve them in a participatory process that informs a design that moves beyond simple aesthetics and function? I sense we are creating the space for these discussions right now.

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Please excuse the phone pictures!

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