The Royal Academy and the former Senate House, which have stood back-to-back in sulky animosity for 150 years, are now set to be finally united
An Academy − all Academies − exist in their own peculiar time, trapped in the present imperfect by an unending process of self-election. For the Members this helps to ease the difficult transition from young and angry to grand and old; for the rest of us, it remains often as much of a surprise to discover who isn’t a Member, as who is. Above all, it leaves undefined the role that the institution should seek to play in public life.
In the case of the Royal Academy of Arts, the terms of this charged debate surfaced early in its history. Sir John Soane, in his fourth lecture as the Professor of Architecture delivered in January 1810, let slip a venomous aside about the Royal Opera House, just completed by Robert Smirke, Jr in Covent Garden. The four-year argument that ensued, fuelled equally by Soane’s persecution mania and by Smirke’s academician father, centred on whether a Member should criticise the production of a contemporary. In a sense, this is the contradiction in all trade associations: for the good of the public, or of the Members?
Over the last 20 years the RA has largely resolved this question, at least in relation to itself, by embracing, and not denying, its own existential contradictions; and in some ways it has come to occupy the role it has through commercial force majeure. The important point is just that cultural life in London has been the gigantic beneficiary of the Academy’s determination to reach the (paying) public.
As a model for a public institution it remains pretty unique, in the ambition of what it delivers, and in the strange ad hoc process by which it evolved. Remarkably, this has been achieved without the grant-in-aid that flows annually to other national institutions − a pattern set by the early insistence of the academicians to themselves pay for the construction of the complex of Galleries behind the original Burlington House.
This history is also the key to understanding the physical structure, and the pattern of growth, of the buildings on the Burlington House site. It is as though living uneasily in its skin has for the RA grown over time into a useful habit of mind. Fifteen years ago, it acquired James Pennethorne’s orphaned Senate House, built for the University of London, which since 1880 has sat on the site of the former gardens of Lord Burlington’s town house, fronting Burlington Gardens.
Two efforts at planning an integration, by Michael Hopkins in 1998 and Colin St John Wilson from 2006, foundered. Both were equally the product of their time and of the sensibility of their creators; the first proving too grandiose (and expensive), the second too diffidently respectful. Neither in truth delivered what the Academy needed, which was just access to more − and more flexible − programme space, and some organisational coherence for the RA Schools.
The current masterplan, won in competition by David Chipperfield Architects, is a triumph of this long process − highly specific in what it offers in terms of service and facility infrastructure and of circulation, and suitably unprescriptive about how the uses of the building will change over time.
The firm faced an architectural problem of intractable simplicity: of connecting two major classical buildings of strictly formal plan, sitting back to back to each other − although in truth neither had ever really been understood as having a back. This difficulty had been compounded over the years as the Schools had burrowed their way towards the light that filtered down into the narrow slice of unbuilt land between the two. We might note here that Soane’s attack of two hundred years ago had been on ‘sacrificing everything to one Front of a building’.
For the RA, as it addressed its own building − and in an atmosphere heavy with peer pressure − it is the strongest, most obvious, solution that has proved finally to be the most convincing. An axial central corridor is planned to link the grand central staircase halls of the two buildings, forming in itself a promenade of real architectural ambition.
As it goes, it will make nicely legible the very problems it is trying to address, with a series of elegant seigneurial nods to the ghosts of the stern architectural practitioners who made the building the muddle that it is. The domestic proportions of Ware’s entrance hall to the south, long a problem for visitor circulation, are eased by breaking back the walls that presently flank EM Barry’s great staircase into new ticket and information areas. Beyond these, lowered sills to two of the windows of Colen Campbell’s original rear facade at last make sense of the unsatisfactory ground level spaces of the Sackler Galleries by Norman Foster, above.
The route then incorporates the astonishing arched spinal link (and a glimpse of the Cast Corridor) that are part of the Schools; both are by Sydney Smirke (yes, another Smirke!). Beyond this the new corridor will arch itself through a section of the studio spaces (possibly by Norman Shaw), leaving below it a yard for the use of the students, as it enters a new south-facing range to the Schools’ facility, and then crosses a fine new gallery space formed where there is now a dreary mezzanine.
Eventually, it breaks its way through on either side of Pennethorne’s staircase. The Burlington Gardens entrance thus becomes all at once the access to the new spaces on the north of the site (including the restored auditorium of the university building), an effective new entrance sequence to the Schools, and the start of a startling new ‘urban’ route. This last parallels the Albany Rope Walk to its east and Burlington Arcade to the west and, for the determined dériviste, will effectively extend Old Burlington Street as far as Piccadilly.
It remains to be seen how the life of the corridor will evolve in use, but in its generosity to the city it nicely echoes the permeability of the National Gallery site, developed in masterplan by Charles Saumarez Smith, its previous Director and now Secretary of the RA.
The challenge that remains, for the Academy and for the architects, is to carry forward the RA’s long history of making-do, in the marketplace and in the evolution of its site, into the Burlington Gardens building. These new spaces need to stand in some contrast to the formal rooms in the original building; such a programmatic loose-fit cries out for a looser fit-out than the one we might generally expect from David Chipperfield Architects.