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Top: The Lecture Theatre, London University, Burlington Gardens (1870) (©Royal Academy of Arts, London) 
Bottom: The new Dorfman Lecture Theatre (©David Chipperfield Architects)

Many of the qualities and characteristics of Chipperfield’s renovation of the University of London building in Burlington Gardens derive from the quality of his thinking in the original competition. The idea of reinstating a day-lit, public lecture theatre, based, as David thinks, on a cultural memory of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, has remained intact through all the many changes in the design. From an early stage, we decided to use the so-called Examination Rooms at the back on the upper floor as an extra set of Exhibition Galleries and to retain their original architectural form with large, over-arching, ironwork trusses, even in spite of the fact that we were told that this risked losing the ability to maintain tight temperature control. From the beginning, we knew that we were going to have to maintain as much as possible of the original painted decoration in the first-floor Senate Rooms and relocate the British Academy Room into a new location at the corner of the building in order to secure the approval of the heritage authorities. From quite early on, we decided to use the big space on the other side of the building, equivalent in scale to the lecture theatre, for the display of our public collection. This should be one of the revelations of the project, providing a comprehensive overview of the major works from the first 80 years of the Royal Academy’s history, including portraits of the early Academicians: Reynolds’s Self-portrait; Gainsborough’s Self-portrait; and a small portrait of John Constable by his biographer, C.R. Leslie; Michelangelo’s Tondo; and a selection of major works, including Gainsborough’s Romantic Landscape with Sheep at a Spring and Constable’s Leaping Horse.

All of this part of the project — how to make best use of the available public spaces — was relatively straightforward. But there remained an architectural conundrum at the heart of the project: that was, how to connect the two buildings, which had existed for nearly 150 years back-to-back. When we first launched the competition in 2008, I told all the competitors not to bother with how the two buildings might be joined, knowing that this was the characteristic of the project which had defeated both Michael Hopkins and Sandy Wilson. But, after about a year of working on the project, Chipperfield and his then project architect, Andrew Phillips, said that they felt that Burlington Gardens would never work as a proper, integrated part of the Royal Academy as a whole unless we could work out how to connect the two buildings into a single entity. They asked if they could go and talk to Maurice Cockrill, the then Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools about the possibility of there being a public route which would run through the middle of the Schools.

I often think that Maurice Cockrill must have been in an unusually benign mood when Chipperfield and Phillips came to visit him one Friday afternoon, together with Christopher Le Brun, now President, but then chairing what was known as the briefing group in (I think) autumn 2010. Cockrill was persuaded of the public benefit of there being a route which would run right through the middle of the Schools, front door to front door and, more specifically, of the benefit of the Schools being more visible as part of the Royal Academy as a whole. Originally, the plan was to have a route at ground level, which would have run across the back yard between the two buildings. But, at some point, this was changed to a bridge which would cross the back yard at first-floor level, descend into one of the studios at the back of Burlington House and then cross the so-called Cast Corridor, which connects the studios together as a cross-axis. The public route then runs through into the basement vaults underneath the exhibition galleries, so emerging ultimately back into the existing public area of the building at the back of the entrance staircase. The bridge has gradually emerged as the signature of the project, nearly the only piece of new build, a robust piece of in situ concrete, not making any concessions whatever to the architecture of the two buildings it connects, but a statement of the symbolic significance of the interconnection between the two buildings, hovering over the newly-landscaped back yard.
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