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.