How David Chipperfield plans to remodel the Royal Academy of ArtsEvening StandardRobert Bevan15.12.2016Royal Academy of Arts

David Chipperfield’s remodelling of the institution’s Piccadilly home reveals the colourful history of two grand buildings

How David Chipperfield plans to remodel the Royal Academy of Arts

Novelist Rose Macaulay knew ruins intimately, her own home having been shattered by bombs in the Blitz. She once observed that our fascination with them is half a desire to build up, half a desire to smash down. 

The author of Pleasure of Ruins would have loved the Royal Academy of Arts right now. It’s halfway through its biggest expansion in 150 years and is in the process of constructive ruination, poised between tumbling away decades of crass insertions and the shaping of new volumes in concrete and steel.

The aim is to connect Burlington House on Piccadilly, built from the 17th century as an aristocratic house but the RA’s home since 1867, with 6 Burlington Gardens, the substantial palazzo behind. This latter was originally London University’s Senate House and later served as the Museum of Mankind. 

A budget of £50 million is being spent on acres of new gallery space and on an up-hill and down-dale route between the two frontage streets. This opens up parts of the complex never seen by the public and will connect the north and south entrances. It will be a third parallel thread through this city block, joining those of the Burlington Arcade and the Albany. 

The Burlington Project, due for completion in 2018, is the third attempt to knit together the pair of grand buildings that have barely been on speaking terms for generations, that are at different ground levels, and whose central hallways are off-axis from each other. Previous efforts foundered on proposals for link structures that were either too complex and expensive, or so low- key as not to be worth the effort. 

Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy, gave orders that, this time around, competition entries should focus on rediscovering what was already there, from attic to basement vault, rather than fashioning an elaborate link building. 

David Chipperfield Architects has made the solution seem deceptively easy — obvious even — yet it will transform perceptions of the Royal Academy. A Rialto-style bridge, like a contorted hollow concrete sculpture in the skinny backyard between the two edifices, connects the staircases in both buildings via a path gouged through the studios of the RA’s subterranean art school and the brick vaults below the present main galleries. 

The bridge leads to a crossroads. Physically so, in the sense that the new route between the front doors bisects the RA art school at a junction with the glimpsed Cast Corridor, revealing the school to the public and vice-versa, but mentally too in terms of reanimating the early purpose of the institution: “It’s philosophical,” says Chipperfield. “The RA is an academy with lots of layers, not a museum”. Its purpose is instruction as well as exhibition. “The negative is that the school is disturbed from its wonderful seclusion but the positive is that the by-passed school will be more engaged. [The project] adds more galleries but, just as important, is a larger idea about more activity.” There will be dynamism as well as static display, he says — education, events and exhibitions will overlap.

The peeling-back process has revealed stone floors below nasty brown tiles and the ghosts of grand, filled-in doorways. Pearly white glazed bricks which once lined vanished light-wells have reappeared. Cages of scaffolding and wheelbarrows negotiating narrow wooden boardwalks lend the site the atmosphere of a dig. 

It is tempting to see the Burlington Project as a mark II of Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin. The Neues project rebuilt the war-ruined museum layer by layer and was seminal for its archaeological aesthetic at an immense scale. When it opened in 2009 it earned Chipperfield and his equally talented collaborator, conservation architect Julian Harrap, well-deserved plaudits.

Chipperfield and Harrap are working together again at the RA but the task here is rediscovering the hidden and eroded character of the existing building rather than jigsawing together a pulverised monument. Missing decorative details are being replaced and patches of bare brick will be plastered over rather than left as stratified collage. But there will be differences between the more Establishment and domestic Burlington House, with its intense historic decoration, and Burlington Gardens, where the new palette will be closer to a White Cube gallery than to the highly coloured Victorian paint scheme next door. 

“There’s always been a tension as to whether Burlington Gardens should be a version of Burlington House, or something more contemporary,” admits Saumarez Smith.

The latter is winning through and Burlington Gardens includes a splendid, 260-seat auditorium that Chipperfield’s project architect Nick Hill has excavated from the remains of a triple-height lecture theatre that was subdivided for much of the last century. 

This is now being recreated as a horseshoe amphitheatre beneath the lavishly modelled original ceiling. The antithesis of a dank, basement auditorium, the light-filled lecture theatre promises to become one of London’s most elegant public rooms: “We want public debates rather than looking at coloured slides in the dark,” says Saumarez Smith. 

In the opposite wing to the lecture theatre was once a vast, double-height library before a concrete floor was inserted in 1928. Soon, its still lofty upper half will show holdings from the RA’s permanent collection. Its fit-out is being overseen by Adrien Gardère, who created the interior of the supremely stylish main exhibition hall at the Louvre’s outpost in Lens, northern France. 

In between are more temporary galleries and the ornate former Senate Rooms that will be restored to hold a café and smaller displays. More of the permanent collection’s architectural casts and models will be showcased and, in general, there will be a stronger emphasis on exhibiting architecture.  

These grand rooms are being book-ended by two new-build structures that take their cue from the monolithic concrete bridge. One is a simple art loading dock, the other will hold the historic British Academy room relocated from the east wing of Burlington Gardens. The courtyard between the two buildings will be used not by the public but by students using the new learning facilities. 

The RA’s new axis is more than a pragmatic route between entrances, it’s a ruin in reverse that promises a ramble through architectural history.