Immediate Surroundings Posted on February 10, 2014

The more you divide up a space the bigger it becomes. Scientific or not, I call it the Law of Immediate Surroundings. Your sense of space depends on what you can see; the only reason why tiny bedsits are habitable is that your vision accepts any limits you impose on it, and the rest of your senses, however reluctantly, follow.

I muse on this whenever I go down an arterial road lined with tiny houses cowering (if they are lucky) behind fences or hedges. At a pinch, I think, I could be content to make one of those cramped front rooms my space – because I could block off the outside world. My immediate surroundings are all I see. I could be snug.

The Royal Academy has just given a clutch of architects license to fool around with the space in its lofty galleries in an exhibition called Sensing Spaces. It’s not hard, with false walls and ceilings, mazes and mirrors, to produce confusion and disorientation – and the pleasant sensation of discovering ‘places’ that are illusory. Or are they?

Only recently I was writing (‘Displaced’, January 27) about what constitutes a place; the Academy show elaborates on the question.What about gardens, though? Isn’t this exactly what gardens are for? I would like to arrange a show that does something similar in garden terms, experimenting with opening views and blocking them off, introducing masses (as summer growth does as trees come into leaf, and tall perennials fill a border) and withdrawing them again. It would be fun to ape the process by inflating and deflating balloon models – at full scale, of course. Inflate a yew hedge to divide a space and see the effect, then try one with a completely different texture – the shine of camellias or laurel or the intricacy of bamboo. Or a brick wall.

I would try out pergolas and trellises, eye-catching statues, gazebos, benches and fountains (tricky, perhaps, with balloons). I would see what difference colour makes – with lights perhaps – turning, say, a white garden into a yellow or red one. How would we record the effect of each change on your mood, your engagement and curiosity? There will be a way, I’m sure, short of wiring up each visitor’s brain.

Indeed the whole thing could probably be done with designers’ software. But no, I want the full Academy experience – not forgetting garden scents and bursts of birdsong.

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