Speaking volumes at the RA

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Words:
Hugh Pearman

David Chipperfield’s painstaking reorganisation and unification of the Royal Academy murmurs rather than shouts, but makes beautiful sense

Burlington House (left) and Burlington Gardens and the connecting route.
Burlington House (left) and Burlington Gardens and the connecting route.

The new architecture is everywhere around you at the RA, and at one point there is a radical intervention, but it is all so understated as to be almost unremarkable. Indeed, a cynic might wonder how on earth the Royal Academy managed to spend £56 million on something that – as a casual visitor – you might easily wander through without necessarily appreciating. But being wholly unshowy was exactly the aim. Architect David Chipperfield describes his work over several years at the RA as being like a doctor – prodding the patient, finding out where it hurts, and alleviating the pain in various places. Now the patient has finally been discharged. 

Working with his long-term collaborator Julian Harrap on the conservation aspects of the project, Chipperfield has essentially carried out a big reorganisation, applying an admirably clear masterplan to what was a chaotic, tribal place of sometimes conflicting demands. Placating the tribes – the different departments and interest groups within the RA – was even harder than physically wrangling the complex of buildings into submission and making new spaces within them. 

The task looks simple on paper. The RA owns two large buildings. The first is of course Burlington House, facing south across its courtyard to Piccadilly, by various hands from the 17th century onwards including (for Lord Burlington) Colen Campbell and William Kent. Its later galleries and art school were built over what had been the house’s gardens. The second is Burlington Gardens, a lavishly Italianate building designed by Sir James Pennethorne in 1866-70 as the main building for the University of London, and subject to various uses thereafter including the British Museum’s ethnographic Museum of Mankind. This, as its name suggests, swallowed up the remainder of the gardens. It faces north to the Bond Street/Savile Row district. The RA took on the building in 2001 and has used it extensively since but it always felt like the annexe it was. Placed almost back-to-back with a forlorn strip of yard running between them, there was no physical connection between these two palazzos, even though the central staircases of both buildings are almost exactly on axis, placed orthogonally on a rectangular plot. Chipperfield has now made that link.

Chipperfield sees the linking Weston Bridge as ‘connective tissue’, as if extracted from the two buildings

  • David Chipperfield RA provides some useful scale. Yes, it is the big window on his bridge.
    David Chipperfield RA provides some useful scale. Yes, it is the big window on his bridge.
  • Simple, yes?
    Simple, yes?
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Obvious? Yes. Easy? No. The scheme as built is the third that the RA has considered in recent times. The first was an ambitious millennium-era project by Sir Michael Hopkins that would have glazed over the court, requiring considerable knocking-about of the first-floor galleries to make a route through. That was abandoned as too costly and impractical. The second, by the late Colin St John Wilson, was its opposite: a minimum-intervention project that found a way through along the edge of the plot. That attracted little enthusiasm and it died with its author.  Another selection process was held, won by Chipperfield with a project, as he wryly points out, very similar to one he had proposed for the first competition won by Hopkins. This was the Goldilocks scheme: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. The RA’s secretary and chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith, who arrived in 2007, was a veteran of two other large cultural buildings projects by Dixon Jones at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery.  This was valuable client expertise for the RA with its roster of architect academicians – Chipperfield and Hopkins among them.

Weston Bridge and The Lovelace Courtyard.
Weston Bridge and The Lovelace Courtyard.

Chipperfield’s Weston Bridge, which makes the leap across the yard to link the two buildings, is pretty much a built diagram in cast concrete and glass. He sees it as ‘connective tissue’ rather than a bridge, as if extracted from the two buildings. You enter its concrete maw from what was once two of the schools’ studios, one of which is now a display gallery for students’ work. Stairs and a lift raise it to a height which allows fire trucks beneath, whereupon it debouches in a new smallish gallery at the back of the Pennethorne building, and from there you filter either side of the staircase into the main hall there. The lift shaft element of the bridge enables a deft sidestep to allow for the metre or so difference between the central axes of the two buildings. It boasts one very large window overlooking the eastern end of the yard, now landscaped and given to the art students of the schools as an outdoor space. From this window you also glimpse the backs of the two buildings. Were it not for the need to take as little space from the schools as practicable, presumably the bridge could have been a bit wider: it feels it might sometimes be a pinch-point.

IN NUMBERS

£56m
Total cost

£12.7m
Heritage Lottery Fund contribution

£1
Annual rent paid for the RA’s lease

8,813 m²
Total floorspace of the expanded RA campus

254m²
Size of new RA Collection Gallery

70%
Increase in public space

  • Early copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, hanging in the RA Collection Gallery.
    Early copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, hanging in the RA Collection Gallery.
  • The Dorfman Senate Rooms landing.
    The Dorfman Senate Rooms landing.
  • The revelation of the project is the reordered vaults.
    The revelation of the project is the reordered vaults.
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The bridge aside, most of the work has gone into the reinvention of the Pennethorne building with its prodigal amounts of circulation space. A run of what was originally lofty top-lit laboratories along the back – one with an acid-resistant stone floor – has become a group of galleries occupied by a Tacita Dean show for the opening, with Renzo Piano scheduled in soon. The big gallery at the western end now houses a permanent curated display of the RA’s own collection. Two other small rooms contain exhibition spaces devoted to architecture. And the very high-ceilinged Senate Rooms at the front are restored by Harrap to a version of their original gaudy colour scheme (elsewhere it is a symphony of pale greys). Finally, the eastern end contains a great new asset: a 250-seat amphitheatre for lectures, debates and presentations. This occupies the same position as the original University of London lecture theatre, long since lost.

The Benjamin West lecture theatre.
The Benjamin West lecture theatre.

The Pennethorne frontage has been restored and its previously daunting street frontage opened up to make more places for people to meet and sit. But for me the revelation is the rediscovery of the previously unseen vaults at the back of Burlington House. 

To move between the two buildings from the Burlington House foyer you dive to either side of the stairs and then out the back, descending what were the original garden steps. This brings you to the vaults – the realm of the RA Schools with its corridor of casts, but also previously a place of pipes, cables, storage and the main art lift rising into the central rotunda above. The clutter is now all cleared away, the lift moved out of sight, the floor level lowered, the previously patched vaults cleaned and unified with a typical Chipperfield ‘slurry’ ultra-thin mortar mix (as previously used at his Neues Museum in Berlin) which he describes as being like make-up foundation powder. 

This result is a noble sequence of Stygian spaces, themselves used as a gallery to show how the RA used to teach art, with a huge classical statue of Hercules lurking in the space where the art lift used to be. As you pass through you can gaze to left and right into the world of the art students who you never used to see at all. 

  • Hercules occupies the vaults’ former lift space.
    Hercules occupies the vaults’ former lift space.
  • Looking up at the ceiling in the Wohl entrance hall in Burlington Gardens.
    Looking up at the ceiling in the Wohl entrance hall in Burlington Gardens.
  • Gallery view of the opening Tacita Dean landscape exhibition.
    Gallery view of the opening Tacita Dean landscape exhibition.
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Taken along with Long and Kentish’s earlier completion of the tucked-away Keeper’s House –with its (Chipperfield designed) restaurant and bar, Friends’ Room and Academicians Room around a tiny courtyard garden – the Royal Academy is now a piece of city rather than a building, its latest design therefore more akin to urbanism than architecture. The public realm is much extended – you can walk all the way through it from Bond Street to Piccadilly and see a reasonable amount of the place without having to buy a ticket. The flexibility afforded by the new galleries means that there need not be awkward gaps between exhibitions. The lecture theatre ought to be a tremendous resource for discourse, debate and performance on art and architecture. There’ll also be more architecture in the mix generally.  

Those looking for a grand architectural statement in the new Royal Academy will look in vain. There is no British Museum Great Court equivalent here. But the quirks of the place are revealed and celebrated, and it is unified and expanded in a very assured manner. It presents all kinds of possibilities for new uses and activities. 

Credits

Client Royal Academy of Arts
Architect David Chipperfield Architects
Conservation architect Julian Harrap Architects
Structural engineer Alan Baxter
Services and specialist engineer Arup
Landscaping Wirtz International Landscape Architects
Project management Buro Four
Cost management Gardiner and Theobold
Acoustics Sound Space Vision
Contractor John Sisk and Son


 

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