Stephen Hitchins explores recent building developments
‘I AM STARRY-EYED and vaguely discontented…’ as were the words of Doris Day. And yet. Coronavirus is surging, avant-garde arts festivals are closing. What better time could there be to open a new theatre and arts centre? Brixton House is up for it. Quietly under the radar, with plans to limit performances, curtail the refreshment offer, mandate the audience to provide negative Covid-test results and full vaccination status – the show must go on. Anything to keep audiences, artists and staff safe in order to open the venue as planned. But imagine getting into the arts while the lights are off?
Cancellations speak to the difficulties of producing live performances during a pandemic, even assuming the most responsible health and safety measures. Championing the value of staging plays can only go so far at a time of risk. Added to which supply chain delays have impacted every building project around. This one is nine months late. Nevertheless, because art is meaningful in people’s lives, and is part of the fabric of society, this is what we do. We open. Albeit in a form that may be less than satisfactory. Do we feel lucky? Well, DO WE?
The opening lobby of Brixton House, a new theatre with two floors of creative space. Image Credit: FOSTER WILSON SIZE BRIXTON HOUSE © HUFTON + CROW
And at times like these, a new theatre project needs crowd pleasers. But where are the crowds? Crowds are remaining stubbornly hypothetical. It has proved difficult to lure back audiences to established venues during a prolonged pandemic. But a new one? Even an old one with a new name and a revamp. It will have to be launched as a really big event. Everyone is working hard to keep children in school, businesses open and our lives as normal as possible, essential as the arts are to our wellbeing, this is a tough challenge.
The exterior of Brixton House. Image Credit: FOSTER WILSON SIZE BRIXTON HOUSE © HUFTON + CROW
It is therefore a surprise that a new theatre is opening at all in Brixton. Architects, Foster Wilson Size, a practice with a number of performance spaces under its belt, promise a ‘purposefully robust’ and adaptable building, ‘in keeping with the spirit of studio theatre’. The project forms part of a much wider development that includes 600 new homes, new retail units and work spaces. Originally known as Oval House, the theatre is also home to two floors of creative arts spaces. A robust building with exposed materials will make it feel ‘studio-ey’. In London, other than the Arts Theatre that opened in 1927, there were very few studio theatres before this century. The Theatre Upstairs constructed in the former rehearsal rooms above the Royal Court in Sloane Square opened in 1969; Riverside Studios became a community arts centre and a drama venue in 1976; the Cottesloe (now called the Dorfman) at the National, originally a late afterthought by Lawrence Olivier and the architect Denys Lasdun, opened in 1977, and also in 1977, the Donmar Warehouse was opened originally by the RSC. And apart from a few venues above pubs, that was about it.
An adaptable creative space in the venue. Image Credit: FOSTER WILSON SIZE BRIXTON HOUSE © HUFTON + CROW
Go to theatre designers and the firm has many theatre projects to its name, from new to refurbished, remodelled and reimagined, many of them part of mixed-use developments. In London there is the Annenberg Theatre at the American School; the Apollo Victoria; the Broadway in Barking; Caryl Churchill Theatre; the Comedy, now the Harold Pinter Theatre; the Duke of York’s, the St James Theatre, now The Other Place; Tricycle Theatre, now called the Kiln; Whitehall Theatre, that is now Trafalgar Studios; Polka Theatre, and the New Theatre, both in Wimbledon; YAA Centre in Maida Vale; and Hoxton Hall, one of only five music halls in London that survive. Away from the capital it has worked in Bedford (Quarry Theatre at St Luke’s); Cheltenham (Everyman); Norwich (Theatre Royal); Salisbury (Playhouse); and in Southampton (Mayflower). Several of these projects have won awards, and the scheme in Brixton won an award before it even began in the unbuilt master-planning category of the New London Architecture Awards in 2016.
So dim the lights, on with the show, and we’ll meet again soon, the way we always do.
The Royal College of Art
Meanwhile, less than four miles away in Battersea, the Royal College of Art is putting the finishing touches to a new building.
Brixton House entryway. Image Credit: FOSTER WILSON SIZE BRIXTON HOUSE © HUFTON + CROW
In the autumn of 1972, a new part-time tutor at the RCA, Christopher Frayling, met Robin Darwin, the outgoing Rector. Darwin was sitting at what he called ‘the painters’ table’ in the senior common room. He asked Frayling what he taught: ‘I’m a historian’ was the reply. ‘Always remember,’ said Darwin, ‘the College is about the future not the past’. By definition, the wholly postgraduate art and design school is just that. Whenever you visit, you get the impression that the future starts here. But the College is also about the past, in particular its own past. In February 1954 Darwin had written of ‘the spirit which hallows all universities and gives them their timeless traditions and I believe something of this spirit has begun to move within the Royal College of Art’. The inevitable and productive collision between ‘timeless traditions’ and future aspirations remains. The institution’s relationship with its own past is best exemplified in its fine collection of paintings, prints, and drawings by members of the RCA community that was begun in earnest in the 1920s by William Rothenstein, the man who first introduced the idea of the practitioner-teacher into British art education. One of the paintings was by Francis Bacon.
Robin Darwin offered the artist working space at the College for eight months in 1969 after a fire destroyed his own studio. In return for the space, Bacon offered Study for Bullfight No. 1. In 1975, the picture went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for a retrospective and Bacon offered the College a replacement. Such was the popularity of the substitute painting that the College requested to keep it. Bacon was pleased as he himself much preferred it to the Bullfight.
A performance space for performers and artists to write, rehearse and share their work. Image Credit: FOSTER WILSON SIZE BRIXTON HOUSE © HUFTON + CROW
Study from the Human Body, (Man Turning on Light) from 1973-74 was one of the highlights of Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening sale on 14 October 2007. By then Frayling had become the Rector. ‘The painting was given to us for a semi-commercial reason in the first place, so it doesn’t feel like selling off the family silver,’ he said, ‘it made a difficult decision easier.’ The RCA had considered selling it once before, in 1989 to purchase a building, one it eventually chose to lease. By 2007, however, the College had decided to establish a campus in Battersea, and the sale of the Bacon launched a fundraising campaign for £20m. It fetched £9m. That was the beginning of what has become a group of buildings named after their partial benefactors: Sackler, Dyson, Woo, and Clore. The Clore Innovation Centre was the first to be established in 2004. The Sackler Building opened in 2009 housing the painting school. Dyson is home to printmaking and photography and was opened in 2012. The Woo opened in 2015 to accommodate ceramics, glass, jewellery and metal programmes. The sculpture building by Wright & Wright had also opened in 2009, and it is that which Herzog & de Meuron has redeveloped into a new Arts and Humanities building. The School of Communication moved to White City in 2017 in buildings designed by Allies and Morrison. The Common Room Block in Kensington was renamed the Frayling Building in 2014. It houses the lecture theatre, student restaurant, library, registry, students’ union, and senior common room – where some of the art collection is hung. Considering his books on spaghetti westerns, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly should be played in the lift.
What began life as the Government School of Design in 1837 in Somerset House on the Strand became the Normal Training School of Art when it moved to South Kensington twenty years later – incorporated into Prince Albert’s educational estate, funded out of the profits of the 1851 Great Exhibition. The Henry Cole Building, now part of the V&A museum was home to the RCA for a century until a team of staff members led by HT Cadbury- Brown, (Hugh Casson, and Robert Goodden were involved) designed what is now called the Darwin Building in Kensington Gore. Since 2001 it has been a Grade II listed building. Opened in 1962, within ten years it was too small and a plan was hatched to demolish a Norman Shaw house as part of a westward extension. That was inevitably quashed. In 2004 Frayling called in Nicholas Grimshaw who proposed a glass bubble on the other side towards the Albert Hall. Th at too was inevitably stopped, especially when Cadbury-Brown led the opposition with a 10,000 signature protest note.
Three floors of naturally lit and ventilated studios are located above a workshop complex that should form the creative hub. Image Credit: COURTESY OF RCA
The question is, do the buildings work: is the whole campus fi t for purpose? In 2002 Christopher Frayling said that Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was ‘the only art school in the world where the building was worthy of the subject. Most look like DSS offices on a wet afternoon. This is a work of art in which to make works of art. Inside are the finest painting studios in the world, immensely high-ceilinged, north light pouring through.’ By comparison, students working in the Sackler building very quickly complained about how little space they had, and especially three years later when the space allocations were cut. The layout of the printmaking studio did not work; the architects saw the antique machines as museum pieces and located them accordingly – as spectacle rather than tools to be used. There were significant lighting problems: the list went on. Haworth Tompkins architects seemed bemused by it all. Dyson had become Provost of the RCA in 2011 and also stood a little bemused when at Convocation students turned away from him as the Brexit supporter rather than shake his hand.
Three floors of naturally lit and ventilated studios are located above a workshop complex that should form the creative hub. Image Credit: COURTESY OF RCA
Maybe the latest addition to the College will begin to solve some of the problems. Striking but not especially distinguished, yet heralded with much anticipation due to its signature architect, we await the users’ report as to whether the building flies or is merely a big name disappointment. £38.8m had been spent on the site in Battersea since 2008, prior to the £122m on the latest building that included £54m from the government, and £15m from the Sigrid Rausing Trust. Until now the Battersea campus has not been what the latest Rector, Paul Thompson, would like us to think of as a “swanky arts factory”; while architecture, design, fashion, and humanities remain in high-rise Kensington with sadly, and perhaps inevitably, a penthouse fl oor planned for the Rector. That may well be swanky. I remember the struggle when Chelsea moved from Manresa Road to the former Royal Army Medical College buildings next door to Tate Britain: initially the senior admin staff had reserved the best light and the premier spaces for themselves. Allies and Morrison did not quite get it either.
The stained glass window in The Burrell Collection building. Image Credit: BURRELL COLLECTION COURTESY OF EVENT
The plan is for the new developments to enhance the RCA’s reputation for working across disciplines, integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics into the curriculum to lead the way as a fully embracing, STEAM-focused university welcoming the power of the creative arts alongside science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The latest building is designed as two separate but interconnected spaces that provide approximately 15,000sq m of distinct, flexible areas for teaching and research. Three floors of naturally lit and ventilated studios are located above a workshop complex that should form the creative hub. The research labs host advanced manufacturing and intelligent mobility – which form part of the new vision for the RCA. It will also house the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and the university’s expanded incubator programme, InnovationRCA, which will see the number of supported start-up businesses increase two-fold. A double-height hangar will allow students to assemble, prototype or display large-scale artworks or inventions, and theoretically provide opportunities to open up the campus to the public and support an enhanced cultural programme. A new café and art materials shop will open to the local community, alongside, so they say “other public realm enhancements”, with improved routes through the site to connect the new building to the surrounding area.
The render of the redesigned gallery area. Image Credit: BURRELL COLLECTION COURTESY OF EVENT
The future that Frayling was told never to forget always comes back to buildings and money. Before Frayling’s efforts, Jocelyn Stevens was the fox in the chicken coop – his words. An old-style Fleet Street boss with no background in culture, from 1984 he was installed as Rector and stayed for eight tumultuous years, reducing 17 departments to four, halving the academic staff , while student applications rose 27 per cent, the budget was balanced and £20m found for new facilities. He did not mellow with age. Private Eye called him Piranha Teeth due to his charming grin. Thought and reflection were not his thing. Brusque, bullying, and imbued with a sense of proprietorial entitlement, he was ruthless. And he loved his demonic image, moving on from the RCA to shake up English Heritage where his combative irascibility knew no bounds. However, there is a building with his name on it, designed by John Miller, completed in 1992. And then there is Thompson, a museum man who moved in and, for a former scriptwriter, failed at times to communicate his plans very well, leading to student unrest, Government funding cuts and staff departures in 2015, losing a no-confidence vote over racism in 2020 (a letter signed by academic staff claimed the college had fostered a ‘hideous culture of overt and insidious systemic racism’), and being dubbed ‘the Sports Direct of higher education’ by the RCA branch of the University and College Union in 2021 for its employment practices. Rectors, or Vice- Chancellor as Thompson now dubs himself, never have an easy ride for long. Will they actually decide to name a building after him?
The Statue of the Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Image Credit: BURRELL COLLECTION COURTESY OF EVENT
When Frayling was awarded a knighthood, he chose as his motto: Perge, Scelus, Mihi Diem Perficias, the official translation of which from the College of Heralds reads: Proceed, varlet, and let the day be rendered perfect for my benefit.
However, it could also be rendered as Go ahead, punk, make my day. On these terms, it could be deemed perfect for a Rector considering the trials and tribulations of management.
The Burrell Collection
Quirky but brilliant, the Burrell Collection reopens on 29 March following a major revamp by architects John McAslan & Partners for the restoration and modernisation of the Grade A listed building, together with Event who delivered the masterplan and the exhibition design.
Retired curator Rosemary Watt admires Brother and Sister, an 1890 bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin. Image Credit: IMAGE CREDIT ELAINE LIVINGSTONE
When it opened 39 years ago, it marked a significant milestone in the post-industrial reinvention of Glasgow as a renowned centre of culture and sport. As the Glasgow Herald reported: ‘The Burrell is not just a magnificent building, nor is it just an array of precious objects – it’s a magical mystery tour and an aesthetic event rolled into one’. Sir William Burrell’s extraordinary gift of over 9,000 artworks is housed in a Grade A listed building, which has always been considered one of Scotland’s finest examples of post-war architecture. Now, one of the finest collections of tapestries and stained glass in the world, amazing antiquities, Chinese and Islamic Art, and a superb collection late gothic, medieval and European renaissance art, 19th-century French art, including one of Europe’s finest collections of Degas, will be on show in what can only be described as a museum renaissance. The project includes the refurbishment of the fabric of the building and the redisplay of the collection.
one of the halls in the Burrell Collection. Image Credit: STAINED GLASS, EAST GALLERY, RENDER OF THE REDESIGNED BURRELL COLLECTION COURTESY OF EVENT
Originally, the building was the result of an architectural competition won in 1972 by Barry Gasson, John Meunier and Brit Andresen. The Burrell opened to great critical and public acclaim in 1983 with its use of local materials to strengthen the relationship between inside and out. Sandstone and timber give the building a reassuringly familiar local architectural feel, which contrasts with the modern palette of metal, concrete and glass. In 2013 it was awarded A-listed status by Historic Scotland as one of the country’s finest examples of 1970s architectural design.
A bust of the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac. Image Credit: COURTESY OF EVENT
When the museum re-opens, there will be over a third more gallery space allowing more important and unique works of art, which have not been seen for decades or have never been on permanent display before, to go on show. The fabric of the building is being improved with greater energy efficiency and additional entrances to improve step-free access. A dedicated learning and education centre will provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand and appreciate the collection, alongside technology to better connect and interact with the works of art on display. Together the renewed fabric of the building, and technological improvements to the services inside, offer better protection for the Collection and a more comfortable setting for visitors. £68.25m has been spent on reimagining the building, a place that merges inside and out, and designed to celebrate the relationship between the works of art, the viewer and the landscape in which it is set. The creation of a central core, which has been designed to encourage people to move around the entire museum and discover all three floors of the Burrell is a first. Taken together the renewed fabric of the building, and technological improvements to the services inside, offer better protection for the Collection and a more comfortable setting for visitors.
A render of a future collection. Image Credit: BURRELL COLLECTION COURTESY OF EVENT
This exceptional building will protect Sir William Burrell’s outstanding gift for future generations in a bigger, greener, more welcoming, and indeed more modern space. The refurbishment will transform the Burrell Collection into an accessible and sustainable museum, one which is designed to preserve and reinvigorate the Collection for a new generation.
THE MAIN EVENT
‘Event, the experience and exhibition agency, worked closely with the charity Glasgow Life to realise their ambition to create the most accessible and beautiful fine and decorative arts museum in the world. Event’s redesign of the displays allows over 9,000 objects to be seen from Sir William Burrell’s collection with each floor allowing visitors to engage with the objects through a different lens by explaining their journeys and the people, places and activities they have been connected with. Not least the previously unseen medieval stained-glass window, known as the Boppard Windows. The original architecture and displays of The Burrell were created as part of a unified vision of aesthetics and materials. Many of the museum’s original stone plinths were listed in their own right. Esther Dugdale, Creative Director of Event says: ‘There is something so peaceful and timeless about The Burrell Collection. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’