Exhibition of “Sensing Space” at the Royal Academy of Arts

(London, UK, 2014)

□   Background

“Sensing Space” is an exhibition hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts. Architects were selected to participate in the exhibition from an international list of candidates thought suitable to work on the theme. The final list of participating architects include: Li Xiaodong (China), Grafton Architects (Ireland), Diebedo Francis Kere (Burkina Faso and Germany), Kengo Kuma (Japan), Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile), and Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura (Portugal).

The task and purpose of “Sensing Space: Architecture Reimagined” is best captured by Curator Kate Goodwin: “The heart of this exhibition is the interaction between three factors: the nature of physical spaces, our perception of them, and their evocative power.”

With our installation, we hope to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery environment—specifically, the grand Beaux-Arts spaces of the Royal Academy of Arts. Typical exhibitions of architecture consist of drawings, photographs and models. We asked whether an exhibition could become a mechanism for highlighting not just the functional and visual aspects of architecture but also the sensation of inhabiting built space. The exhibition poses the question: can a designed experience awaken visitors’ sensibilities to spaces around them, not only within but beyond the gallery walls?

□   Thinking of Space

There is a clear distinction between Chinese and Western concepts of space: the Western tendency is to look at the world as a series of objects, while in China and the East we tend not to differentiate between subject and object. Western architecture develops from perspective, with the building as an object to be looked at from “without,” while Chinese architecture develops from the idea that the building is something to be experienced from “within.”

The Chinese tend to focus on the intangible rather than the tangible—you see this in Chinese painting, in which the blank surface is often just as important as what is inscribed. For instance, in a hand scroll that shows a pair of swimming fish, the presence of water, which can be inferred from the blank background, is a vital part of the image. Allowing room for imagination is essential if a space is to become a satisfying physical experience. The Forbidden City in Beijing, for instance, is about experiencing space after space after space rather than appreciating individual buildings.

This concept was articulated by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Zi, who said that what is important is what is contained, not the container—an idea exemplified by the courtyard typology of traditional Chinese housing.

“Sensing Space”
Concept: Could or could not find the route

Space is perceived via a dialogue between imagination and reality. As when a writer creates a story, using his imagination to develop and reinterpret the reality of his own experiences. There are millions of sensors all over our bodies, taking in information about our environment and transmitting it to our brains. They are like radar, scanning our surroundings and sending back signals. The principal task of this design is to stimulate bodily sensors and, through them, the perception of space.

The installation is made up of two parts. The first part is a maze of slender branches or twigs with a white floor lit from below. The second part is an open Zen garden paved with cobblestones. The two parts differ from each other in terms of their spatial qualities, compositions and atmospheres. We aim to create a “pinch of consciousness” for the viewer with these contrasting spatial conditions. Much of the effect will come from the changes in atmosphere as you move through the space.

Simply put, the core concept of the installation is to “pinch consciousness through defamiliarisation.”

About the Process

The experience of the exhibition starts outside: travelling from busy Piccadilly into the Annenberg Courtyard, then to the eighteenth-century palace, up the grand staircase, and finally into the nineteenth-century Main Galleries. On the street there is a mix of different textures and noises, different people from different backgrounds. Then, in the galleries, it is very pure. Outside to inside, is a rich sequence.

Once visitors enter the installation itself, it would become a journey of discovery. They will have the sense that alternative worlds run alongside their path and intersect with it. Along the way, not everything will be visible and clear. Instead, the story will unfold like the painted image on a Chinese handscroll, something to be appreciated over time.

Metaphorically, you are walking through a snowy forest at night, an experience represented by a maze of slender branches or twigs and a white floor lit from below where you feel lost. But as you explore, you discover niches that provide hope and happy surprises.

In the first half of the space we created a labyrinthian route to the second half the space—the Zen garden. At the end of the maze you arrive at the garden which represents clear-sightedness and inspiration. Through this experience, visitors will have collected a series of impressions that create a new mental landscape.

Let us briefly compare the differences between the Zen garden and the maze. When you enter a maze, its texture, scale and dimensions are clearly defined and familiar and yet there is also a loss of orientation. Then in the Zen garden you experience a new openness and sense of revelation. This contrast, and the flow of energy through the spaces, invites you to speculate on your experience and heightens your awareness. From an epistemological point of view, this invites you to look and understand, to turn “blindness” into “vision.”

I am using branches because they are a natural material people do not expect to see in architecture, and the unconventional application of a familiar material in an unexpected environment generates an effect. I have used a mirror in the Zen garden because mirrors have the power to change the feeling of a space. It becomes not about the physical presence of a wall, but the illusion of something else. The mirror makes the space seem expansive even though it is enclosed. Mirrors are used a lot in feng shui, which is fundamentally about the environment and the flow of energy.

In my view, when you want to be creative, it is not only about originality per se, but about re-interpreting and re-using ordinary materials and objects. In the countryside you might try to blend the branches with nature but at the Expo it is about creating a seemingly natural setting within an artificial environment.

□   Conclusion

The exhibition, different from most architectural commissions where there is a specified function and programme, is more about aesthetic experience. On the one hand it is easier, because you do not have to think about the practical issues, but on the other hand it is more difficult because you need to create a space that people will find appealing—they expect something but they do not know what.

Therefore for me, the main question is how do you arouse their curiosity and generate the kind of impact you want to make? Basically, this is the point from which the design was developed and formulated.