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Friday01 August 2014

Wright & Wright’s RCA sculpture department refurb

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Wright & Wright has imaginatively reorganised the Royal College of Art’s sculpture resource at its south London campus

The Royal College of Art’s sculpture department has been something of a lonely outpost of the main South Kensington campus since it moved to Battersea in south-west London in the 1980s. Under the guidance of architect Wright & Wright, the three postwar industrial sheds in which it is housed have been partly rebuilt and the interiors completely reorganised. When the sculpture department reopens officially at the end of January, it will be the first step in the expansion of the college’s presence south of the river.

This summer, the sculptors will be joined by the painting department in a new building, the first phase of a bigger scheme by Haworth Tompkins Architects to combine the schools of fine art, applied art, and goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalwork and jewellery (GSMJ) on the Battersea campus. In 2010, work is scheduled to commence on the second phase which will house printmaking and photography as well as a gallery, a lecture theatre and accommodation for start-up units for businesses in the fields of art and design.

Something of a cultural quarter has developed in this part of Battersea, with Norman Foster’s empire dominating the riverside, while Will Alsop and Vivienne Westwood have studios tucked away a few streets back. Funding is not yet secured for the third phase, but when it is finished the RCA will have relocated around 250 students and staff from Kensington, reinforcing the area as a significant centre for the arts.

The landing inserted at the top of the stairwell.

The landing inserted at the top of the stairwell.

Before its refurbishment, the sculpture department was in quite a shabby state. With uninsulated asbestos-cement roofs, bare brick walls and grubby, discoloured skylights, the studios were a chaotic agglomeration of years of temporary additions that had slowly become permanent fixtures. Wright & Wright has had its work cut out, with only £2.5 million to spend on a floor area of 2,500sq m. But through careful allocation of the budget the firm has succeeded in dramatically improving the building’s internal organisation, environmental performance and external appearance.

“Sculpture is a robust sport,” says head of department Glynn Williams. “We wanted a plain, rough and simple building, without too much fanciness.” And that is what they have got. On the face of it, the original steel trusses, exposed services and ubiquitous white paint create the sort of lofty, post-industrial space we have become used to in the design world. But these are practical rather than aesthetic choices, determined by the resources available and the activities going on. “It’s a building to make a mess in,” says Clare Wright.

The first intake of students has already been using the studios with the builders working around them. At the beginning of the academic year, each student choses a studio space and studwork partitions are erected accordingly. As the year progresses, the individual cells develop their own character within the collective organism. At the end of the year, the whole lot will be cleared away, the walls and floor repainted, and new partitions built for the summer exhibition. This in turn will be dismantled and the studios will be ready for the next batch of students.

To create some order in this potential chaos, two clear circulation routes have been created which Wright likens to the cardus and decumanus in ancient Roman city planning. A primary north-south route, the cardus, links the main entrance to the administration offices; while an east-west route, the decumanus, forms a central service spine, connecting the studios to the workshops and service yard. Where the forum was normally located at the intersection of the two, we find a staircase which leads up to a mezzanine computer room and a common room with windows overlooking the studios.

The administration offices, which have been moved into two terraced houses on Parkgate Road to free up more floor area for studio space, are linked to the main building by a courtyard. Part of the first floor mezzanine was removed, along with superfluous partitions, to open up the studios and allow a clearer reading of the three original halls. A seminar room, workshops and the original bronze foundry occupy the corners of the ground floor, leaving at least half the floor for full-height studio space. At the top of the stair, wide landings with benches provide places to pause, like look-out towers among the studios.

Battersea Park Road elevation.

Credit: Peter Cook

Wright & Wright’s work is usually rich in material contrasts and meticulous detail, although there was little money available for such luxury here. This is a project about strategy and, according to the client, the architect has understood perfectly what was required. The building has an intuitive order and a well judged balance between privacy and a sense of belonging to the wider group.

On the environmental front, almost all the windows have been replaced and the existing structure was reroofed with insulated aluminium panels and new solar-control glazed rooflights. A daylight factor of 5% can be achieved for an average of 70% of the working day, minimising the need for artificial lighting. There is new gas heating for the winter months, aided by destratification fans which force warm air that has risen to the roof space back down to the studios. In the warmer months, passive ventilation is provided by opening windows and high-level ridge vents.

Externally, several large openings in the walls were filled in with brickwork, while the parapets were extended upwards to give the three units a uniform height. The whole building has been painted dark grey, which binds the patches of different brick and render into a singular, dignified whole. On the Battersea Park Road elevation, a steel screen over the windows and a silver sign alter the scale of the whole elevation. Capped by the metallic sheen of the new roof, the college has a gritty presence on the street.

The atmosphere of the studios reminded me of the old Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood, where subtle interventions and the quality of the industrial shell produced such a vibrant place to discover art. The contrast with the latest Saatchi Gallery off Sloane Square, beautiful but sterile, couldn’t be more stark. At the 2008 summer show, Charles Saatchi apparently bought out the work of two students in the sculpture department. I don’t imagine the chosen ones at this summer’s show will see their work in a more appropriate space than the one in which it was created.

Original print headline - Empty plinth

Project team

Architect: Wright & Wright
Structural engineer: Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners
Services engineer: Max Fordham
Project manager and quantity surveyor: Davis Langdon
Main contractors: Eugena and Drumlin Construction

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