Grand union: an in-depth look at the RA’s redevelopment

Published 11 May 2015

Burlington Gardens, the stately building behind Burlington House, is the RA’s second home. As the Academy prepares for its 250th anniversary, John Tusa reveals the plans to unite and revitalise the two buildings, transforming this artist-led institution

  • From the Summer 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    They stand back to back, the Royal Academy’s home of Burlington House, facing Piccadilly, and its partly used Burlington Gardens, facing the West End, nudging Bond Street, stage to RA shows, home to the commercial gallery Pace, and offering its grand spaces for hire. The site they occupy is a perfect rectangle, no intrusions, no awkward angles, no heritage relics needing accommodation. To the east the secluded, exclusive lodgings of Albany; to the west, the luxury boutiques of the Burlington Arcade. Viewed from above, the ‘two Burlingtons’ – House and Gardens – cry out for unity (perhaps), connection (certainly), shared purpose (definitely). But they are back to back; that used to be the problem; now it is the opportunity.

    For almost a quarter of a century, since the 1990s, the Royal Academy had known that Burlington Gardens, a splendid former university and civil service headquarters, was available. In 2001, it acquired the freehold and a group of Royal Academicians, including Christopher Le Brun, now RA President, began developing a brief for the building. Now 14 years later, the Academicians have an architect with a scheme for the site, David Chipperfield RA; the capital to fund it, some £44 million of the £50 million necessary funding; and a juicy target date by which to complete it – 2018, the 250th anniversary of the founding of the RA. If the drive to solve the problem of ‘difficult adjacency’ – my phrase – now looks unstoppable, it is worth reflecting on why the chosen solution – of which more shortly – has taken so long.

    As I walked around the site with the Chief Executive of the RA, Charles Saumarez Smith, he sighed deeply: “There’s a long history to the project. Michael and Patty Hopkins did a good scheme in 2001. It would have filled in the space between the two buildings. It was ambitious, but it would have cost £85 million and that was the moment that big National Lottery funding for such projects was stopping. Then from 2001 to 2007, Sandy Wilson was commissioned to do a masterplan. He suggested connecting the two buildings but not uniting them physically as one. Sandy died in 2007 and his proposal died with him.” I get the impression that the Wilson plan was not seen as the answer and would not have been adopted had he lived, but that is my interpretation.

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    Sir David Chipperfield RA

    The Royal Academician and architect talks about his plans for our redevelopment.

  • So seven years from buying the freehold, plans for a solution to this ‘difficult adjacency’ were no further forward. In 2008, Chipperfield was the next big name to be invited by the RA to seize the opportunity of uniting/connecting/ blending the ‘Two Burlingtons’. Interestingly, the initial commission was still to renovate Burlington Gardens by itself. “Within a year David came back to us and said the scheme would only work if you connect the two buildings,” said Saumarez Smith, as we stood in the studios of the RA Schools on the north side of Burlington House and facing the back of Burlington Gardens. And then the clincher, simple but daring: “David said, ‘We will give you ‘front door to front door connection’, which means we must go straight through the Schools!’”

    Most of us never see the RA Schools students’ studios, don’t know where they are even. Immediately behind the main staircase of Burlington House, with the men’s loos to the right and the Grand Café? to the left, there is now a locked door in a blank wall. In future it will be replaced by a short flight of steps. Walk down and you will enter a corridor flanked with objects from the RA Collection, and at its end you find the RA Schools with its great east-west Cast Corridor – a sight in itself – and a gallery of students’ work. Up a short flight of new stairs and you will find yourself in the ‘link bridge’, a windowed passageway that takes you over the Schools studios and directly into Burlington Gardens. As the man said, “front door to front door connection through the Schools!”

    I’ve spent some time on this connection for two reasons. First, the Academy so obviously believes that this is the answer, the ‘big idea’ in conceptual terms but an incredibly modest one in architectural terms. Second, because it shows that the Academicians, who Chipperfield – an RA himself – fondly describes as “an anarchic group of grumpy artists and architects devoted to quality, purpose and excellence”, did not rush into a solution, were not trapped into a fast decision. This tells you a lot about the Royal Academy as an institution, as an organisation, as a private group of artists serving public purposes. And most importantly, it dawned on me as I walked around the site, the entire project will nudge the ‘Two Burlingtons’ to become a whole. It raises huge questions about what the Royal Academy is and what it might become once the project is complete.

  • You must insert the idea that art is made. That is what the RA is about; David understands that perfectly.

    Charles Saumarez Smith

  • Because when you enter the Annenberg Courtyard in front of Burlington House or approach Burlington Gardens from the north, you won’t notice much difference. The front of Burlington Gardens will be cleaned and will feature a new terrace, but essentially, the façades of the two buildings will be unchanged. Inside Burlington House the entrance foyers will be far more spacious – that will be nice. The connection to Burlington Gardens will reveal itself – that’s better – and within Burlington Gardens, the second major innovation will reveal itself, the reinstatement of an old lecture theatre on the east side.

    Other elements in the scheme are valuable: a suite of galleries dedicated to the work of living artists, including Academicians; another to show the work of the Schools; and a third for the RA’s own collections. A Clore Learning Centre and a courtyard between the two buildings for students and staff round off the scheme. But you will not find or experience a ‘grand project’, a radical physical transformation if that is what you expect. I think something far more interesting is going on – a transformation of the institution starting with the Academicians’ clear awareness of what kind of body it is. ‘Form follows function’, of course; the nature of the institution shapes its physical envelope. Idea first; architecture responds. Saumarez Smith sees this very clearly: “There is a huge question facing the RA. How will the physical transformation of the RA site both reveal and expand the nature of the Academy?”

    Answering such a fundamental question involves understanding what the RA is now, based on its history. He listed some important characteristics: “It is old; it is a teaching institution; it is a private institution; it is a professional institution; it is a self-elected body.” In today’s terms that raises problematic issues. If self-elected, is it therefore undemocratic? Does a private institution have to be democratic? Is it enough, to quote Chipperfield, that it delivers “quality, purpose and excellence”? Is that justification more valuable to society than going through the rotes of managerial ‘accountability’?

    Quite as important is Saumarez Smith’s reminder of what the Royal Academy is not. “The RA is not a museum; it is not a gallery; we don’t have big collections; it is not a European academy dedicated to the preservation of the ancient.” So what is it? “The Royal Academy is an institution involved in contemporary practice.” This makes the RA an odd fish to categorise: is there another place quite like this in Europe or North America? I can’t think of one. Given its operating purpose is ‘to make, to show, to debate’, only one question follows. Will the Chipperfield plan allow the RA to carry out these activities more fully, more actively, more intensively, more imaginatively?

  • Cross-section of the Royal Academy
    • 1 Link Vaults
      The link to Burlington Gardens begins here with newly revealed spaces showing the RA’s plaster casts of antique statues and other objects from the RA Collection.

      2 Schools Project Space
      Displays and site-specific installations by RA Schools students, an opportunity for the public to see works by an emerging generation of artists.

      3 Link Bridge
      A new bridge unifies the RA, allowing visitors to move between Burlington House and Burlington Gardens for the first time.

    • 4 Link Gallery
      At the end of the Link Bridge is a newly built contemporary art space dedicated to displays and special projects by Royal Academicians.

      5 Burlington Gardens Galleries
      A suite of three day-lit galleries will stage an innovative programme of exhibitions with a focus on living artists and architects.

      6 Clore Learning Centre
      A door leads to a space engaging everyone in the making of art, whether school children, families, local communities or the general public.

    • 7 RA Collection Gallery
      As well other new spaces, the Burlington Gardens staircase leads to a large gallery presenting artworks and telling stories from the RA Collection.

      8 Lecture Theatre
      Next to the richly decorated Senate Rooms is a new 260-seat lecture theatre, for talks, debates, film screenings and concerts.

  • A final question before I moved on: why had the Academy chosen Chipperfield for the project? Saumarez Smith’s reply took me by surprise: “David has spent a lot of time working in American museums. He ran into the question of how to persuade visitors that art is made. People think it grows on trees, appears on museum walls and exists to be bought and sold. You must insert the idea that art is made. That is what the RA is about; David understands that perfectly.” The idea is visible when visitors walk above the Schools studios, see the work of students and Academicians, or make art themselves in the Clore Learning Centre.

    David Chipperfield’s office in Waterloo is unlike any other architect’s office I have visited. All have been elegant, clean-lined, cool; after all if you cannot design a stylish environment for yourself why should anyone trust you to design theirs? Chipperfield’s is surely intentionally spare, thrown together, apparently undesigned, a space for working in, improvised even. Perhaps it lets him and his team concentrate on essentials.

    Of course the ‘front door to front door through connection’ is crucial. “With one leap, Jack was free!” I thought. Importantly in Chipperfield’s view, it is just that, a connection; it does not intrude into or onto gallery space, which he thinks would be intrusive and confusing. But I found his views on the renewed 260-seat lecture theatre in Burlington Gardens revealing. Some wanted it to be a multi-purpose, fully digital, internationally compatible lecture and conference facility. He pointed out that it was prohibitively expensive, it would never earn back its money and missed the point. Which is? “It is a lecture theatre for the Royal Academy, for debate, for discussion, for the exchange of ideas. It is not part of a conference venue. It will be a beautiful space.”

    In putting those priorities so clearly, Chipperfield and the Academy are – wonderfully I think – flying in the face of current ‘managerialist, business-oriented’ thinking; that unless every space in every institution earns its keep, it cannot be justified. In fact, the lecture theatre will break even financially. But by placing its role at the heart of the RA’s mission, Chipperfield and his fellow Academicians are making sure that the new project will allow the RA’s purposes “to make, to show, to debate” to become a reality. “This is not first and foremost a commercial venue; it is the RA’s space. That makes a difference.”

    Chipperfield and his team have more than enough on their plates in this project to keep them very busy. What struck me was his strong understanding that, while his proposals will solve physical problems of access, navigation, connection, display and others, these very architectural solutions raise still bigger questions about the very purposes and workings of the Royal Academy. As an organisation the expansion into a larger, integrated space will ask questions of every part of it. How will the Academicians respond to increased activity and responsibility? Will governance need to be adapted or expanded? How much bigger will the roles of President and Chief Executive become? How will curators handle an increased volume of exhibitions? How demanding will the expanded learning activity be? Who will make it a powerhouse of debate and curiosity? How will the Schools seize the opportunity of new awareness from a public passing through their previously secluded space? How will commercial and artistic opportunities be balanced? Is the Academy, old, distinguished as it is, up to the challenge of change?

    It began with an architectural challenge – how to connect Burlington House with Burlington Gardens. It will end as a question about the very nature of the Royal Academy.

    Such an apparent reversal of priorities does not worry Chipperfield at all. Form is there, he might say, to serve function, to permit it to develop and grow. What might the public say when they find not a signature piece of architecture but a series of apparently modest interventions? “I hope they will say it is continuous, it is not an intrusion. Besides, it is important to do the most with the least.”

    In a crowded gathering in the Keeper’s House recently, Christopher Le Brun reflected on the remarkable solidity of Academicians’ support for Chipperfield’s plans. Then he said simply: “We always talk of behaving as ‘One RA’. This scheme means we really must!”

    Will the Royal Academy look different when the scheme is finished in 2018? Here and there. Will it feel different? It should. Will it be different? That is the challenge.

  • Find out more about the RA’s redevelopment plans on the RA250 page.

    John Tusa is an arts administrator, writer and broadcaster. A former director of the BBC World Service and the Barbican Arts Centre, he has written books including Pain in the Arts (IB Tauris, 2014).

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