Kate Goodwin, curator, on a photograph by Helene Binet of Grafton Architects installation (with lighting by Shizuka Harui) in her ‘Sensing Spaces’ show at the Royal Academy.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
KG It’s a photograph taken by Hélène Binet – a photographer I admire a lot – in one of the spaces in the exhibition I’ve just curated, so it’s a space I’ve spent a lot of time in lately. It’s taken of the installation created by Grafton Architects and while I don’t have a particular favourite amongst the works, I do love sitting on that bench and looking back through the other Grafton gallery to the central hall of the Royal Academy and through to the Pezo von Elrichshausen installation in the far distance. Seeing how all the spaces have come together is a magical thing for me.
I chose this photograph as it suggests something of a sense of revelation. For me, there is something very powerful in the discovery of beauty, that it can be unexpected, or reveal itself at a particular moment. Suddenly you can see something or somebody that you’re already familiar with and a beauty becomes apparent that you just haven’t noticed before. In this image there’s the beauty of the light hitting a surface and casting a shadow but the image also allows space for the imagination and a sense of ambiguity. For me, those things are tied to beauty. There’s magic in the elusive. There’s also a sense of rhythm and structure with one long bench and the five blades – and it’s softened by the light. Hélène Binet’s photographs are always incredibly atmospheric and capture something about architecture that goes beyond what you see. Looking at this photograph, I can almost imagine what it is to touch that surface. I want to reach out and touch that bench.
GB When I was at the show I tried to take pictures and found that it’s quite hard to capture these spaces with the scale and the changing light.
KG Yes, in a way it’s a strange irony that I’ve chosen an image because the exhibition about experiencing architecture, not through image but through that physical sense you describe, which is very different. But for me this image is both neutral and atmospheric. You can imagine what the temperature might be like. It’s also a very particular moment with light splashing on the walls. The rays of light almost look painted or highly considered in some way and yet it’s a fleeting moment.
GB You’ve said that you want this show to be architecture for the human spirit. Does that transitoriness say something to you about what it is to be human?
KG Yes most certainly- but also there’s a feeling of security you can get from this space. It is about slowness and contemplation, inviting us to look or consider or feel, which is something good for the human spirit, particularly when it is so easy to rush through life. It can be a reminder of what exists beyond ourselves.
GB I found that it was slightly strange to look at architecture in a gallery environment. Our response to that will never be the same as the buildings that shelter us from the storm. It’s more like looking at art so you have different expectations of how it should say something to you.
KG I hope the installations provide a visceral experience that echoes beyond the exhibition. People will hopefully be more aware of the galleries themselves and the scale of the spaces. I’ve worked here for many years and often struck by how big they are. A colleague even overheard a conversation about whether or not the Royal Academy had gilded its ceilings especially for the exhibition. In the Pezo von Elrichshausen space there’s a spiral staircase which is very ordinary and familiar while at the same time taking you to an amazing and unknown part of the gallery. The experience of being in the show oscillates between celebrating the grandeur of the space and things that happen on quite a domestic scale. A lot of people have noticed the smell of the pine on that staircase so the experience is multi-sensory and we make these connections that echo in memory so it’s much more than just visual. The presence of other people also contributes to this – the exhibition is both a personal and a shared experience.
GB I found that it was lovely to sit on that bench and watch all the people.
KG Yes, you feel you can blend in and step back out of life, taking a moment for yourself. You can also look through that sequence of spaces I described which is over sixty metres in length. And you’re allowed to not do anything in there. That’s what it’s about. You don’t even have to think.
GB You’ve chosen an image of a man-made structure that’s been built as a response to a man-made space. Do you generally prefer man-made things to beauty in nature?
KG No! It’s always been a very difficult thing for me, but in some ways, for me this image is about light which is part of universal natural beauty. There’s a lovely quote from Alvaro Siza: “Nature is nature and architecture is architecture and one shouldn’t try to replicate the other.” I think that architecture can reinforce or remind us of natural beauty. When I was putting the exhibition together I used two images side by side to try and describe some of the feelings and sensations it was about – one with light streaming into a small aperture in a building, the other with light coming through a forest canopy.
GB So this kind of beauty is much more about straightforward sensation than having an intellectual side for you?
KG For me it’s first felt and then made rational. There are moments where I see –or perhaps hear something beautiful and have a chill that runs right through my body, which is an incredible sensation – like when people say the hairs on the back of their neck stand up.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
KG This goes back to what I said about discovery. I don’t have a sense of hierarchy about beauty. I think it can be found in almost anything for a moment. It can be an overwhelming sensation or something very very tiny. Something resounds within it that we connect or respond to.