The Royal Academy of Arts used its David Chipperfield-designed remodelling process to question its place in the world for the last 250 years and ask what it can be in the next 250.
So said the RA’s head of architecture and Drue Heinz Curator Kate Goodwin just six weeks on from the new RA’s opening at an NLA breakfast talk to explain the scheme’s key moves.
‘A building project asks you to think about what you are as an institution and what you want to be’, Goodwin said. ‘If you want to build something, you have to be able to express what you are.’
This meant, she said, demonstrating to the public the institution’s key components – not just the blockbuster exhibitions but also the school itself, along with new additions created by the work such as a shop, lecture theatre and gallery spaces.
But perhaps the biggest key move, said Peter Jurschitzka, studio director, David Chipperfield Architects, was in linking the two buildings Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. The RA bought the latter building in 2001, with the architects winning a competition for the new RA in 2008. ‘It very quickly became clear that it doesn’t really make sense to have two separate buildings’, said Jurschitzka. ‘We needed to link the two’. What now looks like an obvious solution took a lot of negotiations and modelling, with a link bridge changing what used to be two separate institutions with a ‘fence’ between and a courtyard that was ‘basically a rubbish tip’, negotiating level differences, a slight change of axis and accommodating a stair and lift. Concrete was ‘an obvious solution’, but the double-skinned, load bearing structure is a first in this country, claimed Jurschitzka. The architect also took the audience through other elements of the project, including the link vaults and a lecture theatre which was created on the site of one removed in the early 20thcentury when it changed from being a University of London building. The architects chose a horseshoe format, which works well with its 250 capacity as well as with as few as 20 in an inner circle, and benefits from good levels of daylight.
Goodwin said the result in the RA’s 250thyear has been a good chance to articulate what the institution is all about, including its status as a ‘destination’, with assets including a bookshop and library. The £56m scheme, which included a £12.7m national lottery grant’ was produced while keeping fully operational and had resulted in ‘one RA’ rather than the two disparate entities and buildings that existed before, now with another new extra entrance that will be important once Crossrail comes onstream at Bond Street. The other entrance is now also blessed with a more ‘generous’ space and with better facilities and flow beyond. ‘It is about new experiences, new connections and new conversations’, said Goodwin. ‘It gives us 70% more public space and it changes, I think, what we are’.
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ