Reimagining the Royal Academy

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Reimagining the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy is working hard with David Chipperfield Architects to get more out of its site for visitors and the wider Mayfair public alike, helping to develop the area as a recognised cultural district as well as a luxury shopping one.

That was one of the key points to emerge from a fascinating breakfast talk on the academy’s redevelopment plans last week given by RA secretary and chief executive Charles Saumerez Smith and David Chipperfield Architects’ associate director Nick Hill.

The £50m scheme – which is supported by a £12.7m lottery grant and will be completed in time for the RA’s 250th anniversary in 2018 – links Burlington House and Burlington Gardens for the first time and unites the two-acre site. It includes new spaces for exhibitions and displays, dedicated exhibition galleries, a new link bridge, Clore Learning Centre and double-height lecture theatre with over 260 seats. ‘We will aim to do one architecture exhibition every year’, said Saumerez Smith.

But while there is, he added, a great deal going on in Mayfair, it is ‘hard to engage people in town planning’ with inconsistency over how different streets are treated, and what Saumerez Smith believes is a lack of joined-up thinking linking separate projects together. ‘I’m rather messianic about it’, he said. ‘I’m preoccupied by the immediate neighbourhood, but when the Crossrail exit opens in Hanover Square it is in our interest and London’s interest that the neighbourhood is thought of not just as luxury retail but cultural.’

The idea of creating a new public link between the buildings - from Piccadilly to Mayfair – has quite profound consequences for the organisation of the academy, said Hill, ‘like trying to build a bypass through a nature reserve’, even if the sculptural in situ concrete link is a modest one. 'When we have done our work you might not notice what we have done. That’s not a bad thing'.

The daylit lecture theatre is in a horseshoe plan, the better for flexibility, debate and audience engagement, with a steep rake to give more visibility to the audience. ‘It’s a modern theatre design but it does have a foot in the past’, said Hill. Rooflights will be opened up again in Burlington Gardens to allow more daylight into spaces, while the front of the building will be cleaned and a ramp and stairs added and space created for café seating or exhibition display.  There will also be new spaces for the RA schools, including a permanent space for the public display of work by students at the heart of the site. The integration of the Schools into the visitors’ experience will also reveal the RA’s important role in arts education and long tradition of training artists.

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