The Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens

The opening of the Royal Academy’s new building will give it back its original intellectual intent, as a place of thinking about art as well as exhibiting it

More or less at the same time that the Royal Academy was converting the old Burlington House for its own use with a grand set of exhibition galleries at the back, designed by the then Treasurer, Sydney Smirke, the government decided to build a headquarters for the University of London in the garden at the back of Burlington House. They used James Pennethorne as their architect. He was at the end of a long career in government service, working originally for his adopted father, John Nash, on the design of villas in Park Village West; appointed joint Surveyor and Architect of the Office of Works in 1840; responsible in the 1840s for the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly and the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, as well as the layout of New Oxford Street and Commercial Street in the east end; and, in the 1850s, for changes to Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery.

Pennethorne submitted his first design in March 1866, which was for quite a plain classical building, with a grandly monumental central staircase, flanked by semi-independent flanking wings — on the east side, by what was called a “Hall for Public Meetings” and, on the west, by a “Hall for Examinations”. However, this was the period of the “Battle of the Styles” and the University’s Registrar, Dr Carpenter, recommended that he submit an alternative design in gothic, while the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor were away on holiday. Pennethorne obediently did what he was asked to do in an elaborate form of French gothic, with pinnacles and a mansard roof and, in February 1867, he was instructed to begin work on this design. However, when it became known to the University’s Senate that the design had been changed without their approval, they objected and asked that the design be done in sympathy with Burlington House. After questions had been asked in the House of Commons by the well-known archaeologist, Austen Layard, it was decided that both a classical design and a gothic design should be exhibited for inspection in the House of Commons Library. On May 31, 1867, funds were granted for construction of the building, only provided that it was not gothic. So, Pennethorne went back to the drawing board and produced a design for the current building, which is in his preferred style of monumental classicism, enriched with a great deal of appropriate academic statuary, including ancient philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes and Justinian amongst the ancients, and Leibnitz, Linnaeus, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham amongst the moderns.

For nearly 150 years, these two neoclassical buildings had their own lives, back to back, with no interconnection between them. The University of London moved out of Burlington Gardens in 1900. It was then briefly the headquarters for the National Antarctic Expedition and, in 1902, became the headquarters of the Civil Service Commission. Anyone who wanted to take the examination for entry into the Civil Service — the Home or Colonial Office or the Indian Civil Service — would have taken their exams in this building. In 1928, the British Academy and its then Secretary, Sir Israel Gollancz, were accommodated in a heavily classical, walnut-panelled room, designed by Arnold Mitchell and constructed on the ground floor in space which had previously been occupied by the Lecture Theatre. In 1968, the Civil Service Commission was abolished and the headquarters of the Civil Service moved out to Basingstoke. Its headquarters was leased to the British Museum in 1970 as the so-called Museum of Mankind and began a programme of adventurous exhibitions mounted by its Department of Ethnography, beginning with Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico and Divine Kingship in Africa, both of which opened on December 15, 1970; Pre-Columbian art from El Salvador in spring 1971; Eskimo art and Eskimo Sculpture in 1972; and including many memorable exhibitions, like Eduardo Paolozzi’s Lost Magic Kingdoms which ran from November 1985 to October 1987 and The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico which ran from November 1991 to November 1993.

“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.

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.

The new bridge viewed from the Schools Courtyard (© David Chipperfield Architects)

It is worth reflecting on what the opening of the new Burlington Gardens building means for the Royal Academy, besides being a good way to celebrate our 250th anniversary.

The first is its sense of scale. Richard Carew-Pole, who chaired the Development Committee, used to say to potential donors that the site of the new Royal Academy, which will run from Piccadilly in the south to Burlington Gardens in the north, is as large as the site of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I am not convinced that this is true. But it was always a very effective way of making people realise the full extent of the campus as a whole and that it would provide an intellectual and cultural campus right in the heart of Mayfair.

The second feature of the project is the way that it makes visible all the component parts of the Royal Academy. In the past, most people have thought of the Academy only as a major exhibition venue — the site of the annual Summer Exhibition and a place of pilgrimage for big blockbuster exhibitions, climbing up the early 19th-century staircase at the front in order to see the work of David Hockney or Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer or Ai Weiwei, or, more recently, Abstract Expressionism or Jasper Johns or the art collection of Charles I. There was no particular sense that the Royal Academy is, or has been, anything much more than a kunsthalle, a place for the staging of big, international, sometimes travelling exhibitions. But the Royal Academy is, and always has been much more than this: it has Britain’s oldest art school, hitherto invisible in the basement; it has a substantial collection of art works, many of them given by former Royal Academicians as their diploma work, but supplemented by gifts — this, too, has been largely invisible; it represents Britain’s leading, living artists — but how many people know or are aware of this ?

From May 19 this year, the Royal Academy has become a bigger, more complex, more multi-dimensional entity. At the front is Sydney Smirke’s façade, festooned with statues of the great artists of the past — Michelangelo and Leonardo, Raphael and Titian. At the back is James Pennethorne’s façade, a pantheon of public intellectuals. I like to think that the opening of the Royal Academy’s new building will give it back its original intellectual intent, as a place of thinking about art, as well as exhibiting art — a place where you can see and witness the practice of art and understand its origins, as well as appreciate its contemporary formation and the works of some of the greatest living artists.

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