As the Royal College of Art continues its campus expansion south of the Thames, the AR looks back to its original coverage of the groundbreaking Darwin Building on Kensington Gore
Workshop Into Monument
As the highest national institution for teaching in the arts and design, the Royal College of Art occupies an important position in the cultural life of the nation. It is also, by virtue of its location and standing, part of the ‘concealed university’ of South Kensington, which also includes Imperial College and may therefore shortly embrace the Architectural Association school as well. In addition, by virtue of its site on Kensington Gore, the workshop block of the new building was required to fulfill the difficult architectural role of forming one wing of a near-symmetrical composition whose axis is given by the Albert Hall and Albert Memorial, the other wing by the tall, dark, gabled silhouette of Norman Shaw’s Albert Hall Mansions.
In view of the importance of the College and the peculiarities of the site, it seems almost incredible that the Government should have restricted the budget to the levels of expenditure applying in ordinary technical colleges: but, in view of these financial restrictions, it seems equally incredible that the architects have succeeded so well in providing a building with sufficient monumental as well as functional qualities to make it worthy of the conspicuous site and of its educational purpose.
The new building on Kensington Gore represents the first installment of a phased programme whereby the entire Royal College of Art should be re-housed in a little more than ten years, with the various departments (until recently scattered in a variety of buildings over quite a wide area) brought together in two main studio/workshop blocks, and sundry lower structures adjacent to them. The part completed to date comprises the first of the workshop blocks, housing the schools of fashion and textile design, interior design and furniture design, ceramics, silversmithing and jewellery, and industrial design, and the departments of stained glass and industrial glass. At its eastern end, facing the side of the Albert Hall, and also completed, is the Gulbenkian Hall, which provides assembly and exhibition-hall space, as well as forming the main entrance to the workshop block. The interior appointments of the Hall form the subject of a special Interior Design feature on pages 275-278.
The work remaining to be completed in this first phase comprises the common-room and library block, lying within the angle of the two completed blocks. Site work has begun for this structure, but the construction of the remaining studio block, to house the departments of fine art and graphic design, and the television and film department, awaits the termination of the leases on adjoining properties.
In detail, the organization of the buildings completed to date depends on a main line of horizontal communication, running from the main entrance porch, which faces the Albert Hall, through the Gulbenkian Hall’s foyer, past the receptionist’s station which is in a narrow linking unit, and into the hall of the workshop block, where it serves the stairs and lifts, a number of offices on the front and back of the block, and finally reaches the Principal’s room and conference room at the extreme western end. This administrative level, nominally the ground floor, which is different in function from the rest of the block, is marked by a recessed, irregular and white-painted exterior wall, which is the part of the building most noticed by a pedestrian on the pavement outside.
Below this is a basement for services and heavy work, to which there is direct access for vehicles at the back of the block due to the fall of the ground (the main Gulbenkian Hall is also excavated to basement level, and there is underground access to it from the workshop block). Above the ground floor are the workshops, studios, research-rooms, and other spaces needed by the various schools and departments. Vertical access to these is by two passenger lifts and a staircase at the eastern end, a service lift and staircase at the western end, which, since it has lorry access at the basement level, is the end where heavy and dirty activities have been mostly concentrated.
Very little floor-area within the block itself is given over exclusively to horizontal circulation, in order to make the maximum use of available space and thus keep down the height of the building, and access to most rooms is gained through other rooms. Again, in the interests of reducing the total height of the block, in spite of the fairly tall head-room required by some plant and apparatus (Jacquard looms, kilns, etc.), all the floor levels of the teaching areas are split along the central spine of the building, and are higher at the front than the back, or vice-versa - a situation that is effectively disguised from outside by the vertical split down each end of the block, which avoids direct visual collision between floors at different heights. The main vertical ducts rise in the lift-staircase areas, are channelled through duct-boxes under the ceiling along the centre-line of the building (see section on p. 246}, and are then distributed through exposed ducts. Specially-designed work benches throughout the block are by Frank Height, of the School of Industrial Design (Engineering).
The structure of the workshop block is in reinforced concrete, with floors designed to take loads of up to 150 lb./sq. ft., and columns spaced on a grid which is 16 ft. 6 in. between centres along the facade, and 26ft. clear, column to column, in two spans across the block. Externally, the bay rhythm is divided by three, with a blank brick panel in front of the column, and two windows occupying the centre of the bay. The lift-towers act as wind-braces for the whole block; the stair-structure is complicated by the fact that, at different levels, two flights and a landing may have to span between two tall floors, a tall floor and a low one, or two low storeys. The intermediate landings are hung from vertical suspending members, independent of the columns.