On Tuesday of this week (April 2nd) I went to see the Sensing Spaces Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
The two spaces could not have been more different. In his introductory talk to the UCL audience, the Provost recognized that space is a problem at UCL. There is not enough and much of what there is needs refurbishment. If UCL has the necessary finances, what a wonderful opportunity to think about the influence of space on learning. As one of the Grafton Architects said on a video on the Sensing Spaces website:
If you put students into a certain kind of space they will expect to be fed. If you put them in another kind of space they will expect to be challenged. Space prepares you to receive or to respond.
The aim of the Royal Academy Sensing Space exhibition was that it would ‘radically transform the apparently dominant character of the classically planned and detailed interiors; transformation that will simultaneously amplify and diminish, mask and frame, illuminate and shade, and reinforce and unbalance the familiar gallery experience.’ The exhibition wanted to help visitors re-imagine architecture – just as when we design learning spaces we hope that they will encourage learners to re-imagine learning.
Bruno Zevi suggested in 1948 that we are ‘illiterate in our understanding of space’. (Zevi, B. 1948. Architecture as Space, Horizon Press). Is this still the case? It certainly isn’t the case in relation to the architects exhibiting in this exhibition. These architects could teach us a lot about how to design spaces for learning. That was not their explicit intention for the exhibition, but that is what I came away with. Through their installations it became clear that a carefully designed learning space will give the learner ‘a sense of being able to claim the territory.’
The exhibiting architects understand that the experience of space is a holistic and relational one. Light, temperature, smell, colour and texture all play their part. Learning should be a sensual and embodied experience. As learners we should be in control of our learning paths, following routes of personal and individual interest, moving from lows to highs, from vertical to horizontal, from light to dark, from quiet contemplative spaces to engaged interactive community spaces, through doorways that allow us to make connections between our past and present, between outside and inside and take us consciously or unconsciously over learning thresholds. The learning space should be adaptive and allow us glimpses of as yet unreached vistas that fire our imaginations. It should be experienced from within, not externally imposed.
In his keynote presentation to the UCL conference, Etienne Wenger said that learners in the 21st century need to be able to work in a landscape of practices, with engagement, alignment and imagination. The Sensing Spaces exhibition was for me an experience of a landscape of different spaces, where I could envisage different practices emerging through engagement, alignment and imagination.
The Royal Academy published a very helpful education guide for the exhibition (Sensing Spaces education guide). I have quoted liberally from this in what follows, to show how each of the architects ‘spoke’ to me, not only about space and architecture, but also about the kinds of learning spaces I would like for my own learning.
Álvaro Siza (Portugal)
Siza’s installation is the first you see when arriving at the Royal Academy. The installation is of three columns located outside the Gallery, which connect the outside with the inside. They reflect his interest in continuity, both the theoretical continuity of architectural history and the physical continuity of place. His work is based on a deep emotional response to the site.
‘…… we are always building in relation to something else. What we create is not an isolated object but transforms and is transformed by what exists’.
Entering the Exhibition
There is no set route for viewing the installations. You enter an octagonal room, which is a central pivotal space to which you can return as you create your own pathway through the galleries.
On the wall of the octagonal space is written: ‘Experiencing architecture involves moving within and around it, absorbing its qualities through our bodies and senses. We react consciously or not, to the characteristics of different materials, vistas, volumes, sounds, spatial relationships and proportions. As well as engaging physically with space, our experience of it is also informed by our memories and habits.’
The exhibition sets out to awaken and recalibrate our sensibilities to the spaces that surround us. As such, it is part demonstration and part experiment, which in the spirit of enquiry requires interaction and participation from its audience. Visitors are invited to observe, move through and around, touch, adapt and occupy a series of specially commissioned architectural installations. (Sensing Spaces education guide)
From the octagonal space the route I chose was to first go through Eduardo Souto de Moura’s door. De Moura created two replica door cases – precise facsimiles of those in the Royal Academy and placed the copies at 45-degree angles to the originals.
Eduardo Souto de Moura (Portugal)
De Moura’s installations make passing through an aperture a more present experience – an experience of movement and transition.
Of his work he says:
‘Space for an architect does not exist, so we design the limits that give the impression of space.’
‘For me architecture requires continuity. We have to continue what others have done before us, but using different materials and methods of construction.’
‘It is not possible for an architect to design a space – such a concept does not exist. Instead, we design the thresholds and the limits: the walls, doors, and so on. I’m interested in designing the elements that give the impression of space’.
This aligns with Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s comment:
‘Good architecture is often invisible, but it allows whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible’.
I don’t only interpret this in terms of physical space, e.g. the rooms/spaces that UCL or any learning designer might design, but also the opportunities for ‘internal’ spaces that are personal and individual to each student.
Moving through de Moura’s doorway I came to an interactive community space.
Diébédo Francis Kéré (Africa)
This was a room within a room, made of honeycomb plastic panels, and designed as an interactive and adaptive space, which relied on the engagement and contribution of the gallery visitor. Visitors were offered brightly coloured plastic straws to thread through the holes in the honeycomb structure.
Kéré states that his main aim is ‘ to create comfortable spaces for informal gatherings, and to help communities build their own inspiration’.
‘I believe that 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 the built object becomes part of a bonding process.’
‘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 user’s needs?’
For Kéré space, and learning in that space, is social and collaborative.
In the next space the architects took us to places and spaces that we would not normally be able to visit or reach. They took us into the roof space of the immensely lofty rooms of the Royal Academy.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile)
‘We are not trying to express the structural properties of our buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequence, the way they open – simple things, but which taken together suggest something more complex.’
Then across another threshold, through another of de Moura’s doors ……
…. I entered a contemplative space. Here the influence of space on the visitor/learner was so apparent. You could have heard a pin drop. If anyone talked at all, it was in whispers and hushed tones.
Kengo Kuma (Japan)
Kuma created two delicate installations made of lengths of bamboo whittled to a diameter of 4 mm, bound together to form a fragile structure, impregnated with liquid scent of Japanese Cyprus or Tatami and lit by LED light fittings in the floor.
Kuma’s aim is to ‘achieve the maximum effect with the minimum use of resources’.
‘The more the volume of the material is reduced, the more the human body becomes sensitive and tries to concentrate on the limited, thin, small and slight material in order to smell out or catch ‘something’ from it.’
‘I always start with something small – breaking down materials into particles or fragments that can then be recombined into units of the right scale to provide comfort and intimacy.’
What I took away from Kengo Kuma is that ‘less is more’, which immediately I related to less curriculum could be more learning, less resources could be more inquiry, less teaching could be more discovery and so on.
Grafton Architects (Ireland)
The Grafton Architects also created a quiet space in their dark space. People also whispered in this space.
They made two dramatically different installations, both suspended from the roof lights. ‘Choosing only to work with the roof lights, both installations feature a series of suspended surfaces and forms that manipulate the light and reshape the space in two entirely different ways; one as an exploration of lightness, with what is referred to as a waterfall of light, and the other being the exact opposite, exploring weight, containment and the formation of carved-out space.’ (Sensing Spaces education guide)
The Grafton Architects seek to ‘make as much nothing as possible’, and to structure space through the careful orchestration of the passage of light and movement through the void’. They have said:
‘There is a sense of pleasure in moving from darkness to light or vice versa because as human beings we are cyclical. How light reflects and how light is contained is the stuff of architecture.’
‘Here we are describing spatial experience using not words but light.’
I can certainly recognize learning in terms of dark and light.
Finally I moved into Li Xiaodong’s maze, where I could create my own journey to the Zen Garden.
Li Xiaodong (China)
According to the ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao Zi, what is important is what is contained, not the container.
Chinese architecture develops from the idea that the building is something to be experienced from within. Li Xiaodong’s installation ‘ adds a new maze of spaces to an otherwise familiar route’. The timber frame is infilled with small sections of coppiced timber and placed on an acrylic floor lit by LEDs. The route through the maze culminates in a Zen Garden.
Xiaodong’s work seems to me to be all about identity, which comes full circle to Etienne Wenger’s keynote for the UCL conference in which he said that ‘The 21st century will be the century of identity’. It is interesting to think about the implications of the design of learning spaces for this.
For more photos of the exhibition see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/sets/72157643464527454/show/