Urban smell enthusiasts
The Royal Academy of Arts at Piccadilly, London has a long established reputation for its collections and exhibitions but the current exhibition entitled ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ offers a different experience than the everyday exhibition and incorporates considerations of wider sensory aspects including those of smell. Christopher Le Brun, President of the Royal Academy explains of the exhibition “Instead of displaying drawings, models and photographs to illustrate an architect’s work and ideas, ‘Sensing Spaces’ offers visitors the opportunity to engage with architecture directly and to experience it through their bodies and senses”.
The exhibition floor plan © The Royal Academy
The exhibition, running from the 25 January – 6 April 2014, challenges the assumed primacy of the visual in architecture through presenting seven immersive installations designed to resonate with the senses on a variety of levels. That said, visual considerations (light, dark, height) do feature as key in the two rooms developed by Grafton Architects, which interesting have reportedly also been better received by the architecture and design critics than some of the other rooms.
The first of the two Grafton Rooms
The visual also plays an important role in two of the other rooms including the tall wooden structure by Chilean architect Pezo Von Ellrichshausen which also encourages movement and thus kinaesthesia, also providing an opportunity to peek at the angels, and that by Diébédo Francis Kéré which combines shape, flow, colour and textural considerations.
Peeking out at the Angels (Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s room)
Playing with plastic straws (Diébédo Francis Kéré’s room)
The most notable rooms in relation to olfactory experience are, however, those created by Japanese Architect Kengo Kuma, marked on the above plan as Rooms 6. You enter the first of the very dark rooms via a heavy curtained door leading from Eduardo Souto de Moura’s room where a soft, smoky odour permeates out from Kuma’s rooms. Once within the rooms, or ‘pavilions’ as Kuma describes them, your eyes have to readjust to focus upon the central feature – a lit bamboo structure reaching upwards. People talk in hushed tones only, there’s an overall sense of peace – even spirituality – reinforced by the smell of Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) emitted from the whittled bamboo structure. Kuma explains the intention that as you move through the first room “…the smell deepens, so the lighting conditions and the intensity of the smell change simultaneously” and upon entering the much smaller second room, you are enveloped by a second structure, this time you stand within it, and the scent of tatami is released, an odour associated with traditional matting, such as that on which Kuma used to sleep as a child.
The first of Kuma’s two scented pavilions
I will be talking more about my experiences of the exhibition and my wider research into smell environments and design at the Royal Academy this Friday 21 March 2014, and will also be leading two of my smellwalks in the area surrounding the Royal Academy building. Attendance is free with an exhibition ticket, or for supporters of the Royal Academy. To find out further details about the smellwalk and talk, click here.
Additionally, on Saturday 29th March 1.00– 5.00pm, there will be a Sensing Architecture Symposium at the Royal Academy featuring a range of academic papers and including architect Will Alsop, talking on the theme of immersive architecture. The symposium seeks to unpick and develop the ideas, issues, implications and assumptions the exhibition poses, and promises to be well worth a journey to London; for further details and/or to book online click here.
For those wishing to take a memory of Sensing Spaces home with them, photographs can be taken throughout the exhibition, there’s a wonderful smelling catalogue (print only – not scratch and sniff) that provides much more details about the architects, their work and the individual installations they have created within the exhibition… and the Sensing Spaces range of goods available for purchase in the gift shop even includes a pack of specials pencils reminiscent of Kengo Kuma’s scented bamboo installation!