Building Study: The Royal Academy, London, by David Chipperfield Architects


Expanding Burlington House into Burlington Gardens is all about forging a strong link, says Ike Ijeh


Source: Rory Mulvey

James Pennethorne’s restored staircase is the centrepiece of the Royal Academy’s converted Burlington Gardens building

Most major reworkings of existing UK museums and art galleries in recent years have been all about extensions. The National Gallery extended into Venturi Scott-Brown’s Sainsbury Wing, the British Museum extended into Foster’s Great Court and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation block, the Tate Modern extended up into Herzog & de Meuron’s perforated ziggurat and the Whitworth Gallery extended out into McInnes Usher McKnight Architects’ mirrored brick pavilion. 

The 250-year-old Royal Academy has now joined the throng and acquired an extension of its own. Last weekend David Chipperfield’s extensive £56m overhaul of the academy’s historic Mayfair campus opened to the public, swelling its size by an impressive 70% to cover almost 10,000m². But this extension is different, for two reasons.

First, the new accommodation has been found in an existing building rather than a new one. So there is no new street-facing external architecture. The newly occupied existing building is also historically significant in its own right. The academy’s core block remains Burlington House, Charles Barry Jr’s ambassadorial Italianate pile of 1873, itself built around the remains of Lord Burlington’s early 18th-century Palladian palace.

The academy has now extended into another, even more monumental Victorian building, just north of Burlington House. What is now known as the Burlington Gardens block was built by Buckingham Palace ballroom designer James Pennethorne in 1870 for the University of London. After the university vacated it in 1900 it housed various disparate civil and cultural functions and was most recently home to the Museum of Mankind, an anthropological offshoot of the British Museum, until 2004. Thereafter it was acquired by the academy and mainly housed temporary exhibitions hosted by the Royal Academy Schools. The RA Schools is the academy’s world-renowned art school located in the basement of Burlington House.

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