Art of the invisible: The new Royal Academy by David Chipperfield Architects


London’s Royal Academy of Arts has been surgically attached and integrated with its neighbouring building, nearly doubling in size, adding new galleries and making visible the art school at its heart


Words by Veronica Simpson

On the morning of the Royal Academy’s grand reopening in May, master planner and architect of this strategic knitting together of two diverse and prestigious entities to make one expanded whole, David Chipperfield, is far from content. He is exasperated that there are builders all over the place still; banging and drilling is in evidence throughout the day — and hasn’t finished two weeks later when I revisit.

I congratulate him on the completion of a scheme that has been a decade in gestation. ‘Well, I wish the building was finished,’ he sighs. ‘I wish the builders were out.’ This combination of perfectionism, grumpiness and reticence is typical of Chipperfield, who is not one for smug or grandiose pronouncements about his practice or his buildings. For a man who was described recently in Wallpaper* magazine as ‘the most in-demand art-world architect’, it’s quite refreshing.

At the press conference that morning, he had described the project simply as a ‘linking together of two buildings and giving of purpose to this building’ — the latter being 6 Burlington Gardens. This Grade II* listed mid-Victorian structure, designed by Sir James Pennethorne as the Senate House for the University of London, was built in the gardens of the RA’s current home Burlington House, also Grade II* listed.

David Chipperfield. Image Credit: Simon MengesDavid Chipperfield. Image Credit: Simon Menges

Burlington House itself — much modified and extended over the centuries — was originally part of a 17th-century palace for Lord Burlington and, having been acquired by the Government, was given to the RA in 1867. Neither of these buildings was designed to be a museum, though Burlington Gardens did enjoy a period as the Museum of Mankind (1970–1997).

After the RA acquired Burlington Gardens in 2001, two schemes were proposed that attempted to integrate the adjacent buildings as part of a larger RA campus. One by Patty and Michael Hopkins involved a glazed structure over the two of them — very British Museum. That was far too expensive.

Another proposal in 2006 by Colin (Sandy) St John Wilson suggested the two buildings’ entrances be linked by an exterior passageway. It was shelved when Wilson passed away in 2007. Chipperfield’s subsequent 2008 competition-winning scheme addressed the nub of the problem: there needed to be a clear-cut route from one building to the other, even if it did mean bisecting the studios and corridors of the actual art school buried deep within the Academy, and about which many people were completely ignorant.

The Wohl entrance hall has been stripped back, painted an architectural pale grey, and original flooring revealed, which may not sound like much but it clarifies and unites the experience. Image Credit:  Rory MulveyThe Wohl entrance hall has been stripped back, painted an architectural pale grey, and original flooring revealed, which may not sound like much but it clarifies and unites the experience. Image Credit: Rory Mulvey

However, that wasn’t their focus initially. ‘When we did the competition the question wasn’t how to link them,’ says Chipperfield. ‘It was: what should we do with this building [Burlington Gardens] and how should we treat it? There was a general understanding of this as quite a fine building, but it had been unloved, eroded over time, treated badly. No one quite knew whether they liked it or not. We began the competition asking ourselves how would we treat it. We decided not to impose too much on it; we would try to find its uses. Then the inevitable question came back again: how do you link it? How do you give purpose to it? It was clear that the RA would like to have more exhibition space, but only a limited amount more. We saw that this building could give oxygen to the whole campus, but that all depended on how freely you could connect these two things.’

With his talk of oxygen and treatment, Chipperfield sometimes sounds more like a surgeon than an architect. He says: ‘Well, it’s a diagnostic approach, but it’s the same with every institution. Every institution says: “We need to extend our museum.” And we say: “Well, what do you need? Are you sure?” And you realise that there’s a vanity behind projects where people haven’t thought hard about what they actually need. The interesting thing about museums and institutions is that they are complex. Therefore the front of the house and the back of the house are full of concerns that you have to consider equally… lt’s not viable to extend an institution and not strengthen it at the same time. So to have more galleries but not deal with storage and art handling and office issues… you just end up with a better-looking, but disgruntled, institution.’

The Wohl entrance hall has been stripped back, painted an architectural pale grey, and original flooring revealed, which may not sound like much but it clarifies and unites the experience. Image Credit: Simon MengesThe grand staircase of the Wohl entrance hall. Image Credit: Simon Menges

So what have Chipperfield and conservation architect Julian Harrap done with this particular patient to improve its health and wellbeing? The only new-build elements are a modest, two-storey extension to Burlington Gardens, built to rehouse the wood-panelled British Academy room (which was taken apart painstakingly, piece by piece, and reassembled 3m or so further over), and a new bridge.

The Weston Bridge is an in-situ concrete link between the two structures, placed on axis with the main south and north entrances, albeit one involving two changes of level (down then up). From the Burlington Gardens entrance foyer, it provides a moment of simple, unadorned but beautifully proportioned modernism in the stair foyer, with large windows overlooking a new courtyard space that has been opened up — for school and staff use only — before plunging down one set of concrete stairs into one of the most exciting spaces.

Simplicity itself: the Weston Bridge which links the Burlington Gardens building to the connecting tunnel between it and Burlington House has created an opportunity for a new courtyard space, for staff and students of the Royal Academy. Image Credit: Simon MengesSimplicity itself: the Weston Bridge which links the Burlington Gardens building to the connecting tunnel between it and Burlington House has created an opportunity for a new courtyard space, for staff and students of the Royal Academy. Image Credit: Simon Menges

Not a new space, this is a vaulted tunnel previously filled with pipework. It has been lowered by 1m, to level out the differences between the two structures’ basements, and in doing so provides a far more impressive scale and height, giving the curves and contours of its whitewashed brickwork a Romanesque look, against which the statues from the school’s teaching collection, inserted into alcoves and corners, seem very at home.

The base of the new link’s staircase also provides a new gallery for the Fine Art MA students (17 students a year, for this three-year free MA course) who occupy the spine of studios that runs along the back of Burlington House. More interestingly, the link bisects the main corridor off of which the school’s studios and teaching spaces run, allowing appealing glimpses of the daily activities — the drilling, banging, carving, sculpting and shunting about of materials that goes on in a working art school.

A large window looks down onto the Royal Academy’s private courtyard, at the top of the Weston Bridge stairs to the linking Vaults. Image Credit: Simon MengesA large window looks down onto the Royal Academy’s private courtyard, at the top of the Weston Bridge stairs to the linking Vaults. Image Credit: Simon Menges

As the RA's outgoing chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith said at the official opening, this window on to the school reveals one of the RA’s best-kept secrets — not only is it a place established to promote and support the work of some of the world’s leading artists and architects, it is also a space of teaching and making. The scheme ‘will transform our psychological as well as physical nature of the Academy’, he declared.

But, in conversation, he is generous enough to admit that this porous gesture between school and public circulation was not something he had endorsed early on. He tells me it wasn’t in his initial competition brief, and that when Chipperfield and his project architect told him their idea he warned that if they went there, he would not be on board. ‘I was a bit sceptical that the school would allow the route through. And probably I instinctively knew that if I were there [proposing it] it would become a more political thing. So David talked to the then keeper and persuaded the keeper of the benefits. And that unlocked the project.’

How did Chipperfield achieve this near-miraculous piece of diplomacy, I ask him? He talks about getting to know the history of the building and the nature of its inhabitants. ‘You dig in the building, and you dig in the institution,’ says Chipperfield. ‘You have to work just as much with the people and say: “OK look, if we could come through here it would make the whole thing much easier”. There was huge resistance to it, and quite rightly. Why shouldn’t they resist? Why should their peace be destroyed? But then you have to explain what everybody gets out of it.

The Collection Gallery opens up the Royal Academy’s teaching collection to the public for the first time. Image Credit:  Rory MulveyThe Collection Gallery opens up the Royal Academy’s teaching collection to the public for the first time. Image Credit:  Rory Mulvey

‘It becomes a jigsaw puzzle: what about if we give you a bit more space on the other side of the courtyard and what about if the courtyard becomes more of the territory of the school and you can move out there. And don’t forget that if you can do that, you can use the auditorium as well… it was a dynamic project in that sense, redescribing the place. Then architecture is used as the element to do it. It doesn’t exist unnecessarily. Architecture shouldn’t exist on its own. There’s no reason for it to exist as an independent thing, except for the glory of the architect There he goes, being modest. But it’s not as if Chipperfield is averse to making impressive, standalone, sculptural statements when the occasion demands — his Hepworth Wakefield, the Turner Contemporary, for example.

And he has inserted a lovely bit of architecture into the Burlington Gardens auditorium. Now occupying about two-thirds of the space where an original University of London 900-seater lecture hall sat, he has inserted a more modest, but far more inviting, 21st-century amphitheatre. A spacious, double-height, semi-circular forum for learning, it is entered from the top to get the full effect of the reinstated large clerestory windows. There are widely spaced seats of tan leather, framed by dark, smoked oak, and blackened steel balustrades. As he said at the opening, it works just as well for a small seminar of 20 as it will for an artist talk and audience of 250.

So what else has been transformed or revealed? One large room on the west of the Burlington Gardens building, originally a library, has become the Collections Gallery — something to which only students and staff used to have access. Here, any member of the public can now enjoy — for free — works acquired either for teaching purposes or as donations by Academicians or benefactors, including Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, and Giampietrino’s full-sized copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

The alcoves of the Vaults display the Royal Academy schools’ collection of sculptures, used in drawing studies. Image Credit: James HarrisThe alcoves of the Vaults display the Royal Academy schools’ collection of sculptures, used in drawing studies. Image Credit: James Harris

There is an expanded food and beverage offer, of course: the original Burlington House restaurant and the Keeper’s House are now complemented by a ground-floor cafe and first-floor bar/cafe in Burlington Gardens; the latter in what used to be the Senate Room, which has been lovingly restored by Harrap. Next to this is a new Architecture Studio — a permanent display space for architecture exhibitions, currently showing a meditation on the digital invasions of our lives — Invisible Landscapes: Home, by Barcelona architecture practice MAIO.

With the Collections Gallery, an enhanced F&B offer, as well as the programming of new work in the students’ gallery and throughout the circulation routes, people will have an excuse to visit the RA even when they are not intending to see (and pay for) whatever exhibition is on. There are also added opportunities for education and public engagement in the aforementioned relocated British Academy room and a nearby Clore Learning Centre.

Perhaps the quietest but most impactful of enhancements is in the three galleries, originally designed as laboratories, where architecture exhibitions have traditionally been shown. Currently housing Landscape by Tacita Dean, a solo show by Renzo Piano follows in the autumn. To the untrained eye these have simply been given new glazing and a lick of paint.

Chipperfield designed the new lecture theatre to be as welcoming for a tutorial of 20 as it will be for a lecture to 250. Image Credit: Simon MengesChipperfield designed the new lecture theatre to be as welcoming for a tutorial of 20 as it will be for a lecture to 250. Image Credit: Simon Menges

They are among Saumarez Smith’s favourite revelations: ‘The truth is, when we used these galleries in the past they were dull spaces. They had no character. And yet he’s transformed them, by incredibly subtle means, into absolutely beautiful, day-lit space. It’s beautiful space. I read a review by Nick Serota, and he said: “This is the real thing. It’s perfect for the display of art.” I think he [Chipperfield] uses daylight beautifully. And where he makes interventions, like the wooden door surrounds, they are done with the highest quality materials. There are loads of architects working on contemporary art gallery spaces, but there are few I think who manage to do it with perfect pitch in that way.’

Saumarez Smith is keen to highlight the dynamic between Chipperfield and Harrap on this scheme. He says: ‘His relationship with Julian Harrap is very important. Harrap doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. They won the scheme for the Neues Museum [in Berlin] jointly. There, as here, David reflects Julian and Julian reflects David, though they don’t always agree. A lot of the quality of the project is down to the tension between that balance of old and new.’

On the subject of the work that massively impacts on the final quality of the experience and yet remains invisible, I spoke with Jon Eaglesham, managing director of Barr Gazetas, an architecture practice with a good reputation of its own, but who became involved as executive architect, thanks to its experience with the particular buildings of the West End, and its relationship with Heritage England.

A former laboratory has had all its false ceilings and partitions stripped out to reveal the perfect high-ceilinged, top-lit gallery space. Image Credit:  Rory MulveyA former laboratory has had all its false ceilings and partitions stripped out to reveal the perfect high-ceilinged, top-lit gallery space. Image Credit: Rory Mulvey

It partnered with the main contractor John Sisk and Sons to ensure that the project would be delivered with the right detailing and to the right standard. He says: ‘It is a brilliantly simple concept, but so, so complicated and with these historic buildings you can have 300 drawings, and produce 300 setting-out drawings and it makes no difference because three weeks later you’re on site and nothing is quite as you’d envisaged. Nothing is square. There are no right angles. You count brick courses, you are trying to get a shadow gap in the right place, and you’re relying on what was built 150-odd years ago. It doesn’t work.’

Now that the magic of realigning what couldn’t be aligned and revealing what decades of neglect had hidden has come to fruition, I ask Saumarez Smith how the organisation is settling into its newly reconfigured home. He says: ‘I haven’t figured out the totality, that is, to what extent does the Royal Academy look and feel like a different place, having nearly doubled in size?

What I can say is that the lecture theatre works in exactly the way it was intended to, as a slightly theatrical, very intense debating chamber. Because of being designed like a renaissance surgical theatre, everybody is rather close to the speaker, and it’s exciting. The gallery space is beautiful. The Collections Gallery is busy — busier than we anticipated. We had 17,000 people in the building in the first weekend, which is more than we’ve had except for the final weekend of David Hockney. I’m not going to say it’s going to remain like that. But you can feel people inhabiting the space in an interesting way.’

With permanent, free access to the Collections Gallery, and an enhanced food and beverage offer, the Royal Academy becomes more of a year-round destination. Image Credit:  Rory MulveyWith permanent, free access to the Collections Gallery, and an enhanced food and beverage offer, the Royal Academy becomes more of a year-round destination. Image Credit: Rory Mulvey

It’s still early days, however. Samaurez Smith isn’t sure how that intersection of school and gallery will work in the long term (and the student body seems to remain less than thrilled with it, though once the gates properly secure the school corridor on either side of the public route, that may be resolved). The wider impact of free exhibitions and cafes also remains to be seen. ‘We don’t really attract tourists,’ Saumarez Smith says. ‘We’ve never made any effort to attract them. They come to places where they know what they’re going to see. So they don’t come to an exhibition venue. But they will come to have a cup of coffee and to see the Michaelangelo Tondo. So that does change us, giving us a more year-round presence.’

Chipperfield seems at ease with the visible joins, the way in which different periods and styles rub up against each other, respectfully and quite honestly. Given the various reinventions and evolutions of each institution, adaptability is perhaps the most important component in the new version’s architectural DNA. ‘I think sometimes there’s a pressure on the architect to do something visual and visionary,’ he says. ‘What was good here is that with the RA, given its constitutional make up, there wasn’t that sort of desire for the big image. There are a lot of projects where you can tell the client is just wanting the sucker punch, the CGI image of happy people wandering around this new thing, and this would have been a very difficult project to sell to some people. They might say: “Well, what are you actually doing?” And you say, “there’s an auditorium here, we’re going to make bathrooms here, move those bathrooms there, put the elevator there…” It doesn’t look very exciting. It was good that the RA is sophisticated, the Academicians — though they are a grumpy group sometimes — at least they are intelligent enough not to say: “Well, where’s the wow?” There is no wow in this project.’ And with that, he seems — if only momentarily — genuinely satisfied.





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