Truly Splendid: Sensing Spaces at The Royal Academy


Yesterday I realised it really is worth being friends with The Royal Academy. Last night I spent around three hours wandering through their latest exhibition: Sensing Spaces. Seven leading architects from around the world have designed installations to transform the Royal Academy’s galleries. It is innovative and incredibly refreshing and I already want to go back again.

As you enter the gallery you are at a crossroads. A huge wooden structure enticing you to the left, a metallic arch in front, and a dark silent room to your right. The first room is an introductory room – with two sleek tables topped with interactive iPads explaining who the architects are and what concepts lie behind their installations. But all I want to do is go and explore. Cleverly the RA have made no narrative or set path to follow. This exhibition is more about becoming aware of the spaces around you as you enter them, not about following a story.

photo-3Pezo von Ellrichshausen

So I turned left.

Into a light room filled with a huge wooden structure sitting in the far end of the room. It is made up of four cylinders containing staircases that hold up a horizontal platform. You only realise the staircases are there once you have explored the installation’s underbelly. They are cleverly hidden from view, creating a magical effect as if you are disappearing unnoticed to make your journey up to what lies above. I feel like a child again scurrying up to the top as the scent of the wood reminds me of climbing up into a tree house. Once at the top you can peer out through little viewing holes into the room below. Beware if you’re afraid of heights, its much higher than you’d imagine. To come back down to earth (and my real age) you walk down a wooden ramp that zig-zags down to the bottom. The gentle weaving slope juxtaposes the steep winding staircases.


This ‘Blue Pavilion’ is the installation of Pezo von Ellrichshausen, a duo from South America. It comes as no surprise that they create from geometry using a “limited palette of materials”. I know little about architecture but to me this seems very clean and subtlety detailed. It’s fun and in the three sections (staircases, platform, slope) they have created very different surroundings for you to experience space in.

Have a look through their portfolio. They design truly beautiful buildings.

From there I walk through one of Eduardo Souto de Moura’s door frames, cast from the original arches found in the rooms at the royal academy. Its like the inside of the frame has jumped out and is stood slightly in front. They are beautiful and make you walk through their space in a specific direction. I follow without thinking.

photo-8Eduardo Souto de Moura

There’s a covered doorway ahead of me. I can smell something slightly sweet. I’m curious.  I enter into Kengo Kuma’s dark installation. He has created two rooms filled with bamboo structures that grow out of holes in the ground with light bursting through. The bamboo has been weaved into a diamond-shaped matrix that reminds me of a flame. The air is thick with a wooden scent. This is because Kuma has “impregnated” the bamboo in the two rooms with two different Japanese timber perfumes: hanoki and tatami. It’s appealing to the senses, and I’m ‘sensing’ the space around me.

photo-11Kengo Kuma

Next up there is the installation by architect Diébedo Francis Kéré who has created an interactive honeycomb structure with bright coloured straws waiting for visitors to stick into the honeycomb holes. The structure acts as a wave taking you through from one room into another. It adds another element of fun and unexpected surprise to the show.

photo-12Adding to Diébedo Francis Kéré’s honeycomb construction

On to the next space and I’m filled with excitement and trepidation. Chinese architect Li Xiaodong has created what appears to be a maze. Xiaodong poetically refers to the experience as walking through a snowy forest at night. The walls are made out of rows of twigs perfectly ordered and set slightly apart from one another. The floor is lit up using LED lights that guide your journey as if by moonlight. Every now and again you find something in the forest – a small cabin built into the forest surroundings. I could happily settle in and read my book.

photo-6Li Xiaodong’s Forest of twigs


I love the concept behind it. Xiaodong wanted to create an “immersive space” that feels worlds apart from London. It’s completely transformative and you would not remember you were in the Royal Academy unless you looked up at the ceiling. As you walk through, acclimatizing to this surreal journey, you eventually come to a zen garden. It is an incredibly calming experience and like with the other installations before, I don’t want to leave.

The circle comes to an end now, I’ve found I’m heading back towards the first room. Sadness sets in pre-emptively. But there are still two more rooms and they are really cool. I am now in the space taken over by Grafton Architects. The two spaces appear to have been based upon the impact light has upon space. The first room has a grid-like white structure hanging from the ceiling, breaking up the natural light from above into the space below. The white facade of the material creates a light and cool atmosphere. It’s very airy and lifting. In contrast the next door room has a very heavy imposing square structure suspended over the floor. It weighs down over you. I weirdly love its effect, it feels safe. As you walk through and stand in the centre the light source slowly changes creating a range of tonal shadows over the floor below. It’s very beautiful and contrasts dramatically with the previous room which enhances its effect.

photo-2Grafton Architects

Another installation lies outside the entrance to The Royal Academy in the courtyard, where Álvaro Siza has tracked the birth of the column creating a dialogue and continuation with the facade of the Academy itself. He responds to the environment that already exists and creates a little visual story.

The exhibition ends with a film. White benches and very squishy cushions face a large screen where we are properly introduced to the faces and works of those creative minds that have devised these extraordinary installations. The way they have all treated space through an architectural analysis of the relationship between body and space is fascinating. I have huge respect for the innovative step curator Kate Goodwin has taken by placing the poetry of architecture rather than fine art at the heart of the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition.

Sensing Spaces opens 25 January. Book your ticket now!

For More information on the Architects:

Pezo von Ellrichshausen –

Eduardo Souto de Moura –

Kengo Kuma –

Diébedo Francis Kéré –

Li Xiaodong –

Grafton Architects –

Álvaro Siza –


One thought on “Truly Splendid: Sensing Spaces at The Royal Academy

  1. Pingback: London’s Cultural Banquet. What to Feast your Eyes upon in the coming weeks. | ForageForArt

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