How does this place make you feel?

The ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ exhibition at the Royal Academy made me want to 1) become an architect and 2) express the ineffable. I have neither the time nor attention to detail required for the first, but I can give the second a shot.

So there I was, at an interactive exhibition which encouraged visitors to respond to structures, textures, lighting, scents and colours, and to consider questions like ‘how do spaces make us feel?’ and ’what does architecture do for our lives?’

My brother would roll his eyes with incredulous boredom at the prospect. However, as someone with an over-conscious sense of place and a soul which enjoys those kinds of questions, it was totally my cup of tea. We climbed wooden spiral stairs which brought us face to face with golden cherubs near the ceiling, added bright plastic straws to an evolving tunnel, toyed with rocks in the Zen garden and agreed that the bamboo stuff was pretty cool. We wandered and we pondered, and then – being the sophisticated grown-up ladies that we are – went to the gallery’s café for a late lunch. Super.

When are you aware of spaces you inhabit?

That question floated momentarily onto a soft white wall at the heart of the exhibition and meandered into my mind. One person’s answer morphed into being:

“Thresholds are places where we naturally become more aware.”

So true. Thresholds. Liminal spaces. Borders. These come up all the time in my job when people’s positioning in relation to the UK ‘border’ makes a ridiculously significant difference to daily life. I work with ‘new arrivals’, with those in limbo who are waiting for their immigration ‘status’ to be ‘resolved’, and with those on the point of ‘forced removal’. Yes, I am hyperaware of the implication of those threshold places.

And, somewhat bizarrely, those transitional places have become my comfort zone. Someone asked me recently why I went to my local business networking meetings. Good question. To meet interesting people (obviously), specifically those who inhabit the same locality as me. But also – I realised as I answered the question – because I like the challenge of expanding my horizons and stepping into contexts where I sense my newness within a place and get to restart the knowing process. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy travelling and random architecture exhibitions.

It’s so easy to become comfortable in our worlds and to assume that others should cross the line and come to us. But, for some reason, I have this compulsion to train myself to step into others’ shoes and see what they see when they look at the world. To cross that threshold into a room full of strangers, to tread the road less travelled, to re-contextualise myself among the unfamiliar, and to grow in empathy for those who feel at sea in the places where I am at home.

As I set off to the exhibition, my friend’s little girl asked me where I was going. Realising that she’d probably not grasp the concept of architectural installations, I said that I was going to a gallery to see art. “Will you buy one of the paintings if you like them?” she asked.  I said it would probably be a bit out of my price range so I’d just have to enjoy them while I was there. She paused, then looked up at me with bright consolation. “Don’t worry, Emily,” she said, “the shop will probably sell key rings with the pictures on them and you can buy one of those instead.”

It was funny that in her 9 year old way she’d clocked the other notion that Sensing Spaces highlighted for me: the fact that when we see and feel something beautiful we want to keep it forever.

And capturing the moment was precisely what everyone in the exhibition was doing: we all had our cameras out. For some, it was probably just that twitter generation default of recording the experience for posterity and almost forgetting to actually experience it in the process. For others, I’m sure it was a more profound desire to possess the moment in real time in its entirety; the senses it evoked and the connections it offered with something beyond ourselves.

I loved Oliver Burkeman’s recent piece about these places of connection and his references to the Celtic Christian term ‘thin places’ to describe “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”. I got a shiver down my spine reading about those “moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words”.

Darn. It’s that old heavy burden of beauty in its time and the unfathomability of the eternal from our time-bound perspective. It’s that R S Thomas poem which I love so much about the sun breaking through, but just for a while. It’s those delightful yet transient seconds when the physical and spiritual align and I am truly here. It’s that hankering after staying in that place forever; of seeing face to face rather than through a glass darkly and of tearing down the walls that hold me inside.

But those meaning-saturated moments are fleeting and, as both Thomas and Burkeman suggest with pragmatism and humour, we quickly jolt back to normal life as the elusive slips away yet again. Zut alors.

I left the Royal Academy, battled my way through the tourists on Piccadilly, and got increasingly irritated by the people who were standing still on the escalators on the tube. Arriving back at Hammersmith, I smiled at the plastic bag in the blossom tree and felt reassured that paradise sometimes seeps back up through the parking lot that is London.

Here I am.

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