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“New Buildings of the London University, Burlington Gardens”, from the “Illustrated London News”, May 1870  © Royal Academy 

By the late 1980s, the Royal Academy began to be aware that there was a plan for the British Museum to move its Ethnographic Department back to Bloomsbury as part of its Great Court Scheme. I remember how, in the early 1990s, there was much discussion as to how the RIBA Drawings Collection might move to Burlington Gardens in order to create an Architectural Centre; and I visited Burlington Gardens myself in about 1998 or 1999 when Christopher Ondaatje was considering buying it as a possible home for his collection of Sinhalese antiquities.

The first plans for the development of Burlington Gardens were the result of an architectural competition held by the Royal Academy in 1998. This was chaired by the then President, Sir Philip Dowson. Amongst the competitors were David Chipperfield and Nicholas Grimshaw, but the competition was won by Michael and Patty Hopkins, who put forward adventurous proposals for creating a big, glass-roofed public atrium between the two buildings. I do not know the full history of this project as it was long before my time at the Academy, but, as I understand it, it ran into three problems: first, Leonard McComb, the then Keeper, objected to the demolition of the studios at the back of the Royal Academy Schools and their replacement with a sculpture workshop on the top of Burlington Gardens; second, Norman Rosenthal, the Exhibitions Secretary, objected to a suggestion that there might be a route through the middle of the main floor exhibition galleries; and, third, as happens, the costs crept up to £85 million. The project was turned down in an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2002.

The next set of plans were drawn up by Colin St John Wilson, the architect of the British Library. I am more familiar with these proposals because they had just been completed when I arrived at the Royal Academy in September 2007. They were extremely thoughtful, but handicapped by an assumption that it would not be possible to create a public route between the two buildings which in any way jeopardised the architectural integrity of the Royal Academy Schools which lay across the basement of the site underneath the main floor galleries. Instead, Wilson proposed a pedestrian route which ran crab-like, sideways out to Albany and then along the party wall with Albany, connecting the buildings along their eastern perimeter. It was intended to be a more economical solution than the one proposed by the Hopkins, but when I arrived in 2007, it was already costed at up to £100 million. Moreover, Sandy Wilson had died in May 2007, so the Academy had lost its lead architect.

As a result, we decided to launch a third architectural competition in May 2008 to find an architect who could focus on the renovation of Burlington Gardens alone. One of the competitors was David Chipperfield, who had himself been a lead candidate in the first competition in 1998. He went back to the original Pennethorne ground plan and proposed putting back a big, day-lit, public lecture theatre in the space which had originally been occupied by a public lecture theatre. His proposals had an obvious logic to them. I now realise that he had also recently been elected as an RA, which meant that he had the full support of his fellow academicians, in a way that I don’t think the Sandy Wilson project ever did. He won the competition with a recommendation that the building should be treated in what he described as a “light-touch” way, keeping the integrity of the original ground plan — in fact, as far as possible, recovering it — and not being too specific as to how the spaces would be used, in order to maintain a degree of future flexibility.
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