David Chipperfield will at last link the Royal Academy with 6 Burlington Gardens
As well-directed as they may be, the history of the Royal Academy’s attempts to colonise 6 Burlington Gardens has proved far from straightforward. Constructed between 1867-70 on land that had previously formed the rear garden of the RA’s own Burlington House, the property was designed by James Pennethorne in an ornate Italianate manner for use by the University of London. That occupant moved out in the early part of the last century and, following a period of use and significant adaptation by the civil service, the building was taken over by the British Museum in 1970 as a home for its ethnographic collection, under the name the Museum of Mankind.
In the late nineties the British Library moved to its new building at St Pancras, freeing up space at the British Museum that enabled the ethnographic holdings to be returned to the main collection. The RA seized the opportunity to purchase Pennethorne’s building and, in 1998, held an architectural competition with the aim of integrating it with Burlington House.
It was won by Michael Hopkins & Partners with a project that would have ranked among the most ambitious public projects undertaken in London in the last decade. A 20m gap separates the buildings, which the architect proposed glazing over, forming a new point of focus to the expanded complex. The cost was estimated at £80 million but the Heritage Lottery Fund was not persuaded of the need for such a grand development and the project was abandoned.
The problem was then addressed by Colin St John Wilson who in 2006 drew up a masterplan for the RA’s entire site, which envisaged a far more modest link between the two buildings. However, any possibility of Wilson developing that proposal was frustrated by the architect’s death the following year and so a new competition was held in 2008, this time won by David Chipperfield Architects. The practice’s plans were altogether less invasive than those first mooted but the question of how to fund them remained.
Charles Saumarez Smith, the RA’s then newly appointed chief executive, decided that the most convincing starting point would be to rent the building out for a period, both as a means of raising capital and as a way of buying time while the RA came to a clearer sense of what programme the building might support and how it might be funded. The property was let to the Haunch of Venison gallery, which operated there until earlier this year.
Now back in the RA’s hands, the building reopened to the public this week with a show of academicians’ work — all of which is to be auctioned off to raise funds for the project — occupying the galleries on its upper level. Meanwhile, part of the ground floor has been converted by Chipperfield’s office for the Pace gallery, which is occupying the space on a 15-year lease. The intention now is that — pending the success of an HLF application which is due to be submitted next year — Chipperfield’s full scheme will be implemented in time for the RA’s 200th anniversary in 2018.
The process of adapting its original ambitions for 6 Burlington Gardens may have been a difficult one for the RA, but it is clear that a stronger vision of the building’s identity and potential has emerged as a result. The model now is something akin to Paris’s Palais de Tokyo — a building supporting a range of small shows focused on contemporary practice, both in art and architecture and characterised by a sense of programmatic — and to a degree, architectural — heterogeneity.
Already, a pop-up bar made of scaffolding has been installed in one of Pennethorne’s highly decorated interiors on the upper level and a Scandinavian wholefood café has taken over a downstairs space. Saumarez Smith is relaxed about the idea that such commercial tenants might form part of the mix of attractions. The Pace gallery is opening with a show of Mark Rothko and Hiroshi Sugimoto, which he views as a valuable contribution to the building’s cultural offer.
A new bridge will link the building to Burlington House, spanning a sculpture court
In large part, Chipperfield’s work — which the practice is undertaking in association with its Neues Museum collaborator, the conservation architect Julian Harrap — promises to be appropriately undemonstrative. However, the scheme includes two set-piece interventions that will change the building dramatically. The first is a new lecture hall, capable of seating up to 350 people. There was a triple-height lecture hall in the same location in Pennethorne’s original design but it was lost during the building works undertaken by the civil service. Chipperfield is removing one of the two floors that were introduced then, creating a hall which, while only double height, still promises to be extremely dramatic. The steeply raked seating is to be configured in a Teatro Olimpico-style horseshoe. RA president Christopher Le Brun has voiced the thought that the wearing of togas should be compulsory.
The other very emphatic intervention is the creation of a new bridge, which will link the building back to Burlington House, on their shared central axis, spanning a new sculpture court in the process. Exiting 6 Burlington Gardens via the bridge, visitors will descend to a refurbished passage, which takes them under Burlington House’s galleries, and then climb up again into the main RA foyer. The toilets currently in the foyer are set to be relocated to the lower level, freeing up what is presently a congested arrangement.
The project will effectively double the area of public space available in the RA. The upper-level galleries alone are two and a half times the size of the Sackler galleries. The question of how all this space will be programmed in the long term remains the subject of much debate within the RA and is no doubt being monitored closely by other institutions such as the ICA and Somerset House, for whom the emergence of such a venue may represent a considerable challenge. However, after more than a decade of frustrations, it now looks increasingly certain that 6 Burlington Gardens is set to form an integral part of the Royal Academy.