People will flock to experience the new spaces, predicts Saumarez Smith

The pulling power of David Chipperfield’s £50m transformation of the Royal Academy will be more like Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern than Caruso St John’s Tate Britain, its chief executive has predicted.

Charles Saumarez Smith said he believes the RA, whose £50m transformation opens to the public on Saturday, has under-estimated the number of people who will visit just to experience the architecture.

The projection of an extra 400,000 visitors is based on the people likely to be attracted by the art and is similar to the performance of Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary in Margate. Current RA visitor numbers fluctuate between 800,000 and a million a year.

But Saumarez Smith said: “I think we have under-estimated the number of people who will come to see it as an architectural experience, at least at the beginning. The 400,000 was calculated on the number of people who will come to see the permanent collection but I think people will want to come and gawp at the space and then word of mouth will do the rest.

Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern

Source: Hayes Davidson

Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern

“People miscalculated the number of people who visited Tate Modern – but Caruso St John’s project at Tate Britain made absolutely nil difference,” he added.

In its first year, the Tate Modern attracted more than twice the number of people expected, making it the UK’s most successful new museum ever. Last year’s extension by the same architects also broke records.

Tate Britain redevelopment by Caruso St John

Tate Britain redevelopment by Caruso St John

Saumarez Smith said Crossrail might also boost the figures as Bond Street Station’s Hanover Square entrance would be a short walk from the RA’s new rear entrance.

This might come to rival the Piccadilly front door for popularity, he said. Chipperfield has moved the lavatories and cloakroom from the original entrance to make that foyer less cramped.

Chipperfield’s job has been to link the existing Royal Academy building with 6 Burlington Gardens, the former Museum of Mankind directly behind it, using a bridge over the area occupied by the RA Schools. A new auditorium and galleries for architecture and the permanent collection are also part of the project which coincides with the RA’s 250th anniversary.

Saumarez Smith said he was pleased to be the chief executive whose team pulled off the project 20 years after it was first attempted with a Hopkins design which Chipperfield last week said had failed because it was “over-inflated”.

He conceded: “It had become a bit like Piccadilly Circus, where plan after plan came and died, and when I started there was a presumption that this was just one more plan. That makes people cautious or cynical.

“But this is the last remaining grand building which hadn’t found an effective use in the centre of town and that gave me confidence.

“It’s exciting. I’m interested in the way a building project transforms the nature and character of an institution. You can do it programmatically but also architecturally,” he said.