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Wednesday23 July 2014

Haworth Tompkins has it down to a fine art

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The architect’s Dyson Building is the latest product of its ongoing involvement in the RCA’s ambitious expansion

RCA Dyson building

The Dyson Building is Haworth Tompkins’ second building on the RCA’s Battersea campus.

We’re very conscious that we have to offer the best facilities in the world,” says Royal College of Art rector Paul Thompson as the institution prepares to launch its latest facility, the £21 million Dyson building in Battersea, south London. “The cost of an RCA education is comparable to Ivy League universities. So we’re not competing on cost.”

With the opening of the 3,000sq m Dyson building next month on Battersea Bridge Road, the RCA’s ongoing plans to establish a substantial Battersea campus are gaining critical mass as it implements an expansion strategy that will see student numbers rise from 750 in 2011 to approx 1,500 in 2015. By then, more than half of these will be in Battersea, a bus ride over the river from the RCA’s Kensington Gore HQ.

Overseeing this significant shift in emphasis within the RCA estate is Haworth Tompkins, which was initially brought in to design the new Battersea facilities and was subsequently appointed to masterplan the future needs of the entire college estate. As well as the handsome Dyson Building — which will house printmaking and photography departments — the practice designed the adjacent Sackler Building for painting students in 2010. It is also designing the Woo Building, the next phase of the expansion, which is expected to open in 2015.

This theme of rising student numbers and the pressure to provide the best facilities possible to attract staff and students alike is common across the higher education (HE) landscape following the recent changes to HE funding. But at the RCA, the roots of its surge of estate expansion go much deeper. According to Thompson, throughout the college’s 175-year history it has repeatedly been thwarted by a lack of space. In 1961 it established a base at Kensington Gore with HT Cadbury-Brown’s Darwin Building, but there was no space for its sculpture school, which has been in Battersea since 1991. The Stevens Building followed, but attempts to increase accommodation further with the Grimshaw-designed Ellipse extension were abandoned in 2004.

RCA Dyson building

By 2015 at least half of RCA students will be based in Battersea.

With the Darwin at bursting point, the only way to facilitate these pent-up expansion needs was to develop a significant campus elsewhere and the RCA chose to do this alongside its existing Battersea presence.

“Until the Battersea campus came on stream our growth was constrained,” says Thompson. “We hadn’t opened a new course since 1992. There’d been a bottling up of space.” Even with the Sackler, Dyson and the Woo buildings, he adds, these needs won’t be fully met until 2021.

At Battersea, there has been scope to create more space within a less sensitive planning context. Haworth Tompkins has certainly delivered the high standards of facilities that Thompson stresses are so crucial nowadays.

“Students expect the best in the world. They don’t expect to make do with cramped facilities,” he says. It’s certainly a myth, agrees Graham Haworth, that artists are happy with dingy conditions.

In sharp contrast, the Dyson takes a far more generous approach, with an emphasis on visual connectivity both within the building and out to the surrounding environment. Like the Sackler, spaces are robust with a knockabout, industrial art factory aesthetic and a neutral palette that will quickly be animated by the students’ work.

“The building has to provide a framework and not be too precious. But it can’t be that yielding either,” says Haworth, referring to the interiors as “supernormal”.

According to Haworth, one of the biggest challenges was meeting the considerable M&E needs of the equipment. Another constant theme was providing enough — and the right kind of — space.

“Space is so special for them. They can’t get enough space for pin-up and display,” he says.

RCA Dyson building

Interior spaces embrace an industrial “art factory” aesthetic.

There is a real sense of expansiveness — particularly in the lofty printmaking workshop that is overlooked by students working in studios and by those circulating through the building. Other notable spaces within the Dyson are the 220-seater lecture theatre, which has large windows, giving views, if desired, both outside and inwards.

Students expect the best in the world. They don’t expect to make do with cramped facilities

As well as housing the print and photography facilities and studios, the building contains hot-desk facilities for other students, a ground-floor gallery, and business incubation spaces for recent alumni. The structure is expressed to expose how the building is made, with the in-situ concrete structure and polished precast concrete cladding panels clearly visible.

The Woo, which will sit between the Dyson and Sackler buildings, is the third phase of the Haworth Tompkins scheme, and will house the ceramics & glass and goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalwork & jewellery departments. Realising that more was still needed, in 2010 the RCA asked Haworth Tompkins to look at further options for the whole estate. As a result, another new phase is likely to follow on a nearby site in order to house the fashion and textile departments. This will free up more space at Kensington in addition to that released by the departure of photography and printmaking, which has already allowed the architecture school to expand.

That’s unlikely to be the end of it, although Thompson rules out any future prospect of a total exodus from Kensington. Haworth Tompkins is looking at changes to the Kensington site, where the college feels there is still scope for expansion and improvements despite the difficult planning constraints.

The RCA may have brought its still-functioning Victorian screen printing presses with it to the Dyson, but full of long-suppressed expansion plans, it is very much looking to the future.

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