Unveiling the plans
Transforming the spaces
Side elevation: The area shaded in pink denotes the spaces that Friends have hitherto had access to. In addition to the refurbishment of those spaces, a new restaurant and the Shenkman Bar will be open to Friends. In the longer term a terrace area will become available in the Keeper's House garden. The Keeper’s House has been part of the eastern wing of the Royal Academy since the nineteenth century. Its current restoration has its origins in a project conducted by the late architect Sir Colin St John (‘Sandy’) Wilson RA, most famous for his British Library in King’s Cross, London. Wilson concluded that the Academy’s multifaceted buildings, constructed across four centuries, necessitated an architectural masterplan. The particular possibilities of the Keeper’s House emerged from Wilson’s analysis: here was a specially constructed annexe, built in the 1870s to house the Keeper of the Schools, which over the years had lost its purpose and, slowly, its identity. It was decided that the house should be developed to dramatically increase the floor area and the facilities available to Friends.
Sandy Wilson died in 2007, but the practice Long & Kentish,
whose partners are Wilson’s widow M.J. Long and Rolfe Kentish, worked on the masterplan with him, and are the architects charged with transforming the Keeper’s House.
Transforming the spaces
Rear view: A glazed lift and staricase, created between the Keeper's House (left) and RA Schools (right), will provide disabled access and look out on the garden. The project, due for completion in autumn 2013, creates a space autonomous from the rest of the Royal Academy. The work has taken complex planning, ‘It’s a very difficult project. It’s on several different floors and it affects the whole Royal Academy, because each floor affects a different constituency,’ Kentish explains. ‘It’ll become a place in its own right, it will have its own front door from the Annenberg Courtyard that we plan to open from breakfast through to late evening’.
The current spaces for Friends on the ground floor, the Sir Hugh Casson Room and the adjacent Belle Shenkman Room, will be redesigned, refurbished and better integrated. The Casson Room, much loved for its living-room feel, will continue to house a café and retain its emphasis on comfort. The Belle Shenkman Room will share this emphasis – this intimate lounge will be an ideal place in which to relax after visiting exhibitions. The expanded floorplan will also include a new cloakroom and toilets.
The lower ground floor has previously been out of public bounds, used by the Academy for office spaces and storage facilities; the restoration project will open the space up with a new restaurant and the Shenkman Bar, both of which will be enjoyed into the evening. These spaces will be overseen by the acclaimed restaurateurs Peyton and Byrne, who are responsible for the RA’s main restaurant
as well as a series of other successful restaurants at art venues including the National Gallery, ICA and Wallace Collection.
Long & Kentish’s most visible, modern intervention is a new glazed lift and staircase structure created in the gap between the RA Schools and the Keeper’s House. Providing disabled access to all levels, it will greatly improve ease of movement throughout the entire building. The lift and staircase will afford a view into the Keeper’s House garden and the RA Schools studios. There are also longer term plans to open up the old Keeper’s House garden, a hidden corner of the Royal Academy complex, as a terrace, a rare al fresco sanctuary in the bustle of Piccadilly.
Removing the modern walls exposes an original niche feature. Photography: Francis Ware © Royal Academy of Arts. As visitors move throughout the Keeper’s House, they will find a sensitive transformation of its spaces, with subtle nods to the building’s history. ‘We’re trying to unearth what the place was like originally. Through exploring and through opening it up, we have found that there are ceilings above ceilings and floors beneath floors,’ Kentish says. Among the underlying layers are details going back to the very earliest moments in Burlington House’s history in the lower ground floor restaurant and the Shenkman Bar. ‘Above the ceiling are the original beams from the Palladian mansion, and we are going to either expose them, or at least reveal them in their form,’ Kentish says. ‘That has a connection back to Lord Burlington, Palladio and Venice. Just revealing what is there is almost enough – not putting back something that was false, or that was never there. Peeling back the layers is part of the fun really, and I think the Friends will enjoy that as well.’
Artworks from the Academy’s collections will be displayed throughout the Keeper’s House, as well as an ongoing programme of small-scale exhibitions. The design team is working with the Academy to create spaces that allow for more carefully curated exhibitions.
The Academy’s historic spirit of debate and discussion will be encouraged throughout the Keeper’s House – the Casson Room will be transformed to accommodate events such as artists’ talks and book readings, for instance. Indeed, the space promises to have the distinct feel of a salon for art lovers of all ages.