I am sitting among fellow journalists, listening to Royal College of Art Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson talk about a new £135million building, the largest ever undertaken in its 185-year history. This, he says, will put RCA “firmly at the forefront of creativity internationally” and enable its “interdisciplinary thinking to solve global problems”. These words, bland bordering on platitude, contrast with the building, which looks powerful and distinctive.
This is where the central questions lie both for the institution and for its architecture. Can its continued growth in student numbers (from 1,040 in 2010 to 3,300 expected in 2027) and income, its pursuit of global status and Treasury patronage, be achieved without compromising the spirit of adventure, curiosity and anarchy that helped shape former students like David Hockney, Ian DuryRidley Scott, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili? As Oliver Wainwright wrote in the Guardian last week, there is reason to fear that there may indeed be conflicts between corporate ambition and a free spirit. The building, however, designed by the famous Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuroncreators of the Tate Modern, provides a framework for what could be a great school of art.
What you are the first witness to is punch. The building – RCA’s third campus in London, joining those in South Kensington and White City – stands in Battersea, on the south bank of the River Thames, amid the visual and social din that passes for waterfront planning in London: the refined glass box that contains the offices of Foster + Partners; a bulbous block of speculative apartments that the same practice built next door; the ogival verandas on the roofs of the 1980s; Victorian houses and pubs complemented by modern real estate values. On the other hand, the new structure, arranged along the entire length of a street, is coherent and assured.
Most of what you see is a brick of a fairly modest type that you can get from builder merchants. The faces that are usually not expected to be seen – the sides of the bricks mottled by firing processes – are here facing outwards. They are then laid in a shallow relief of projection and removal to achieve an effect that John O’Mara, director of London studio Herzog & de Meuron, describes as “hairy”. At the edges and corners, it may become deliberately uneven or toothy. In places, the solid walls become perforated screens, letting light into the rooms behind.
If it is robust, it is also streamlined thanks to the horizontal lines of the cantilevered balconies, up to 97 m long, which wrap around on all sides. It has notes from a balcony access board estate and the Queen Mary. Then, lest the whole thing get too austere, two oversized triangles appear on the roofline, perky like cartoon cat ears, and here signifiers of the north-facing skylights associated with studios and workshops. Another surprise, a squat tower rises from one corner of the site, whitish and metallic like an office building, accentuated vertically, contrasting in several respects with the low-flying masonry.
Inside, the building offers vast, high-ceilinged volumes, what the architects call “maximized containers for studio work,” efficiently stacked on three upper floors, as well as lavishly furnished ground floor workshops. with state-of-the-art equipment. The space under the large triangular skylights is stunning, and these encircling balconies will allow students to pause from their work for the fresh air and views of London. The studios and workshops are at the service of sculpture, contemporary art, moving image and design. The tower provides for research in areas such as robotics, advanced manufacturing and “intelligent mobility”, as well as a startup incubation center by RCA graduates.
So far, much of the building has been a sophisticated and elegant teaching factory, accommodating up to 1,000 students, but the architects want it to be more than that. They call it a “civic connector,” something that can encourage interaction between students from the college’s many disciplines and the wider locality, which includes other RCA facilities and creative businesses such as Vivienne’s headquarters. Westwood. To this end, they cut wide passageways through the building at ground level, allowing the public to take shortcuts through it. The largest of these, called the “hangar”, doubles as an exhibition space where the college’s output can be displayed.
Architecture does not always take the most obvious path to achieve its ideals of creativity and connectivity. It can be relentless to the point of being off-putting – balconies, for example, are of uniform width, which contributes to the formal coherence of the building, but perhaps makes them less conducive to appropriation and adaptation by students than would a wider range of sizes. . These perforated brick screens are intriguing in theory, opaque and transparent at the same time, but can seem imprisoning from the inside.
The hangar is designed to display the full range of the college’s production multiplicity, right down to large vehicles inclusive, which can be driven through its tall pop-up doors. However, it fails to be a sympathetic space for more intimate art forms, its rough brick walls being daunting. A small photographic exhibition, by the artist Rut Blees Luxembourg and his RCA students, seems a little blocked on a mezzanine gallery that goes around the upper level of the hangar.
The severity of the building is a familiar feature of Herzog & de Meuron (see also their Tate Modern extension). They prefer attitude to dissatisfaction and tend to believe that gratification is better if it is not instantaneous. It’s also amplified, for now, by the fact that a significant part of the design isn’t complete. It is a courtyard with an adjoining cafe, framed both by their rectilinear architecture and the ramshackle backs of some typical London street houses. Here, it’s promised, it’ll be some of the informality and ease of occupancy that the rest of the building doesn’t always offer.
In theory, if more students than ever before have access to the best art and design education, that’s something to celebrate. It should be a good thing for Britain if people come from all over the world to find these tuition fees here. The interdisciplinary nature of the Royal College – the fact that people can study ancient skills such as ceramics and printmaking alongside robotics and artificial intelligence – should also benefit everyone involved.
There is ample evidence in contemporary higher education that quantity does not always go hand in hand with quality. The question for Royal College leadership is whether the generic language of their public pronouncements can somehow translate into a sharp and vital lesson. Their building – sturdy, sometimes generous, more often pragmatic, certainly characterful – offers an array of spaces that can be exploited and enjoyed in multiple ways. If he’s inflexible in places, that’s a mistake on the good side. Better than fake friendliness like you can find in a mall.