If you are looking for somewhere to take the children this weekend, try the Sensing Spaces Exhibition at the Royal Academy. It’s a place where you are encouraged to touch and photograph and climb the exhibits – almost unheard of in an art gallery. You can climb this platform designed by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen – enjoying the structure itself and at the top look at the cherubs and gilded decorations fashioned in the 19th century to adorn the Academy.
Each room has an architectural exhibit designed by a different architect from around the world. Pezo and Elrichshausen are from Chile and the structure ( four spiral stair cases enclosed by the pillars and a ramp as well as the viewing platform) was prefabricated there and shipped over in panels.
The most popular installation with children has to be a honey comb plastic tunnel which you are able to help decorate with your own mini sculpture or motif made from coloured straws. It’s designed by African architect, Diebedo Francis Kere, who often involves the community in his buildings whether involving them in what it is they need or actually carrying the building materials!
Many people, including me, chose to make flowers or bunches of flowers ( perhaps because it was Valentine’s Day when I visited) and stick them in the accompanying cubes like futuristic flower troughs. People were plaiting, twisting, knotting, tying together. They were standing, leaning on walls, sitting cross legged, photographing their creations, tweeting them giving them to their friends. Some were chatting, others silently focussed and exchanging compliments – but few people walked through this exhibit without getting involved.
Li Xiaodong takes you through a maze of narrow passages, walled with wood coppiced panels, with niches to hideaway along the route. You finally end up in a courtyard or Zen garden where the gallery floor is covered with pebbles and the space is doubled with a wall of mirrors. Again people of all ages were enjoying this installation. Students were sitting in the hidden niches chatting, smaller children were running on the pebbles and there was not a single disapproving face among the staff as the public got up very close indeed with the exhibit!
Two adjoining rooms show the contrasting uses of form and light as one installation almost blocks all the light coming from the roof creating a dark though peaceful space where visitors walk under these suspended blocks. In the other room the blocks are arranged differently so that light pours in from the ceiling and benches down one side encourage people to stay awhile and sit and think or read. Noone went as far as getting out a picnic – but if they had it would not have seemed odd.
There’s a 15 minute film, which children might not want to sit through, but it’s well worth it if they can be persuaded – as a way of putting the architects into context.
You can spend hours here or walk through relatively quickly – again perfect for a family trip! Though I love to go to galleries and studied History of Art at school – making me positively Picasso-like in the depth of my knowledge and understanding of all art forms – this is not something I would have chosen to go to – simply because I would have imagined it would all be architectural drawings and rather dry. It just shows how very wrong you can be and it’s a real triumph for the curator Kate Goodwin and the Royal Academy’s determination to be more family friendly.
I went round the exhibition twice, but somehow managed to miss two rooms off to the left from the Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. So it is worth checking your plan to make sure you have seen it all – but for me it’s a great excuse to go back with the children.
The exhibition runs until 6th April. What are you waiting for!