The first article in the London schools series, Will Hunter reports on the social and pedagogical agendas shaping the RCA’s latest changes
The Royal College of Art styles itself as ‘the world’s oldest art school in continuous operation’, a proud boast that slightly falters on its technicality, setting the mind wonderingly off onto some intermittent older rival. But the point is that the RCA is very old (established 1837), and where it is surely unrivalled is in its alumni.
The headline names are glittering enough − Henry Moore, David Hockney, Edwin Lutyens, James Dyson − but there is little diminuendo in the ‘second tier’ (David Adjaye, Frank Auerbach, Christopher Bailey, Peter Blake, Quentin Blake, Ossie Clark, Robin Day, Thomas Heatherwick, Barbara Hepworth … the roll call goes on).
At the end of last year, the college attempted to condense this breadth of achievement into its Kensington galleries for The Perfect Place to Grow, an exhibition to celebrate its 175th anniversary.
The show title is doubly ironic − knowingly so when it borrows its name from a work of art by Tracey Emin, who famously hated her time there and smashed her paintings with a hammer in its courtyard; and then surely inadvertently, as a wry comment about a college that rapidly outgrew the Darwin Building, the home completed by HT Cadbury-Brown in 1962.
‘For so long the RCA has existed on slightly substandard accommodation,’ says Graham Haworth of Haworth Tompkins, the architect of the college’s recent expansion, ‘and because you have to charge more fees now, people want proper facilities’.
The practice won a competition in 2007 to create a Battersea campus around the lonely sculpture department which had decamped there, to a converted industrial building, in 1991. Satisfying the urgent need for fine art studios, the first completed addition was the Sackler Building (2009), essentially a new building inside the brick shell of an old factory.
The next two phases are the Dyson Building and the Woo Building, which have been split for funding reasons but were conceived as one. The first − named after inventive alumnus and sponsor James Dyson − opened in 2012; the second will complete next year.
By the middle of this decade, when all three of the Battersea buildings are in use, the college plans to have grown student numbers by just under 50 per cent, expanding its physical space by a third. A third of the students will be in Battersea, and − after a planned further phase − around half will be by the start of the next decade.
While the student experience may well be affected by this numerical growth, it will perhaps be more influenced by this splitting of the college in two. For an institution that has flourished on the intensity of interactions intimately staged in a single place, this is potentially risky. Isn’t there a danger that the outpost south of the river will undermine the main camp? Or, to quote Philip Larkin (from another context): ‘Why did he think adding meant increase? To me it was dilution.’
RCA Rector Paul Thompson is quick to quash this line of thought: ‘We don’t want two separate centres. We want to encourage the people who are based in Battersea to come up to Kensington, either for social events, or lectures in the evening, or the library.’ There is an hourly shuttle bus, which on a very good day takes a mere 11 minutes. But, of course, at an institutional level the character of this transformation is critical.
‘It has been the most debated part of the development,’ says Haworth who instinctively saw the two campuses as both different and the same, whole in their own right but also partial − a paradoxical position he expressed succinctly with a photograph of the artists Gilbert and George.
For Thompson, it is a great opportunity to update the RCA’s identity. ‘Everyone has always thought of us as being “Kensington”, “The Royal Borough”,’ he says. ‘Battersea does cast us in a different light. It is becoming more and more a centre of activity in London with the American Embassy, the development of Battersea Power Station, and in design terms it’s already got Vivienne Westwood, Norman Foster and Will Alsop, literally on our street.’
Coming over Battersea Bridge, the new campus is one block back from the River Thames, behind a bloated apartment building by Norman Foster, practically dumped on his own doorstep (against the conventional wisdom), on the site next to his office.
‘It’s a part of the city that we work in quite a lot − like the Young Vic at the Cut − in that second layer of London set back from the river, where it becomes more visceral and workaday,’ says Haworth. ‘That has generated the physical appearance. So it’s got a very direct functional message as an aesthetic.’
The effect is quiet, unassuming, even reticent. The sawtooth roofs evoke the industrial architecture that is typical of this area historically, the pared-back materials emphasising this point. It works very well for the functional parts, but the more public areas that line Battersea Bridge Road required greater transparency, and the gear change between these two conditions has not, for me, been completely successfully resolved.
Moving along the perimeter, the building quickly has to shift between mute studios, welcoming gallery (though currently only open when a show is on as the main student entrance is at the rear), and culminate in the commercial reality of retail. It is a bumpy transition to make in a short space, and a difficult one for a practice whose architecture is as polygraphically honest as Haworth Tompkins’; externally, straying from the literal might have been more beguiling.
Inside, however, the honesty of the architecture is absolutely spot on. The building, at its simplest, is split into three strips. The closest to the main road contains the more outward-facing amenities, such as the gallery, the café, a 220-seat lecture theatre and start-up spaces for recent graduates; in the middle is a triple-height workshop called the ‘machine hall’; and in the strip farthest back is the studio space for the different programmes.
The Dyson Building contains photography and printmaking, and when the Woo Building is completed, it will extrude this section, doubling the length of the machine hall and creating studio space for ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewellery.
Though notionally you can read the three bands underlying the building’s organisation, this is not an inhabited diagram, and the spatial experience is both subtle and complex. ‘The college does have an idea that there is fluidity between programmes, and, depending on who you talk to, you get a positive sense that that is happening or not,’ explains Haworth. ‘Within our building we’ve tried to open it up with a lot of horizontal drift and views through the building. It’s quite open visually, with a lot of glass screens.’
The unifying space is the machine hall, which can be seen into from the entrance gallery, on the way up to public lectures, but also, more informally, from studio spaces or the circulation across it. ‘You can see printmaking on one side, and people playing with clay on the other, and we think that interchange will be different to the Darwin Building at the moment, which is a series of stacked factory floors,’ continues Haworth.
Unlike many academic institutions, which are now encouraging their flocks off campus, the RCA wants its students to work in the college. ‘Part of the deal is that you get a desk space,’ says Haworth, ‘and then the particular programmes we’re dealing with have a lot of very specific technical components too. Printmaking, for instance, has a whole floor just of equipment, from high-end digital to screen printing.’ It is typically, he estimates, a 50/50 split between studio space and workshop for each programme.
But alongside this requirement for specificity, Haworth Tompkins has also been mindful of future change. ‘We kept the building very flexible in terms of its spatial arrangement,’ says the architect. ‘The floors are very open plan, so if they did want to change them in 10 years’ time they could do.
The spaces could be appropriated quite easily. For instance, we kept the sawtooth roofs at the top for photography in case they were later used as painting studios. But we designed a system for them to be blacked out.’
The practice has taken a utilitarian approach to the interior, making an architecture that is keen to express the way it’s made. Inspiration has come from Functionalist precedents such as the Boots Pharmaceutical Factory (1931) by Owen Williams, the Ulm School of Design (1957) by Max Bill, and Erco Studios and Technical Centre (1988) by Uwe Kiessler.
But there are also very clear parallels to be made to Cadbury-Brown, who asserted that, ‘Money should be spent on space rather than finishes − as a place where art is in a continual process of being made, the interior especially should be plain … its principal functions should be to act as a background to art and not assert itself as an “art thing”.
As a description of how Haworth Tompkins has operated, this statement resonates six decades on and can’t really be bettered. In their underlying approach, the Battersea buildings bear the genetic imprint of their stately Royal forebear.
And, of course, this senior architectural relation is also in a process of change. ‘Every time there is a move down to Battersea it gives us the opportunity to reassess what goes on in Kensington,’ says Thompson, who commissioned Haworth Tompkins to do a masterplan for the whole college midway through the thrust south of the river.
The main moves will be to sort out the skip-strewn rear entrance, creating a proper loading bay, while opening up and giving more status to this primary arrival sequence.
The rectorate will move from the ground floor up to the top, which will sensibly clear the gallery space. And there will be a lot of what Haworth calls ‘desilting’: removing the layers of entrenchment that have built up over time, and restoring the factory-style studio spaces to their original open plan with views out on all sides.
This has already happened on the sixth floor, where architecture and fashion cohabit, an odd disciplinary marriage, perhaps, but one that adds to the gaiety of the college’s social (if not creative) life.
And what of life in Battersea? ‘It’s still very early days, and the inhabitants there are trying to figure out how they want to use the space,’ says Thompson. However, an auspicious start has been made with the café in the sculpture building, designed and built by three of last year’s architecture graduates with the sculpture school’s Richard Wentworth acting not so much as client, but guru impresario.
The students moved it from the originally earmarked space to a room that opens onto a little courtyard, and it has already become Battersea’s social centre.
Furthermore, as a project that unites both sides of the river, and where students rub along with faculty, it’s a positive augury for the continuation of the creative collisions the college has been so reputed for in its past.
Architect: Haworth Tompkins
Photographs: All by Philip Vile except 4
Next month’s article will conclude with Central St Martins and London Metropolitan University