Royal Academy expansion reveals hidden life of art schools

The Guardian | Oliver Wainwright

The architect Sir David Chipperfield would be quite happy if you visited his £56m expansion of the Royal Academy of Arts and couldn’t quite tell what he had done. Unlike the British Museum’s Great Court or Tate Modern’s Switch House, the illustrious Piccadilly pile in central London celebrates its 250th birthday with less of a flashy architectural statement than a series of discrete acts of corrective surgery – which, together, promise to transform the entire institution. “I’m hoping this might take us from one star in the Michelin guide to two or three,” says Charles Saumarez Smith, the RA’s chief executive. “We’ve never really been a destination for cultural tourists before, as there hasn’t been much to see between the big shows.” He hopes that will change, with 70% more public space now excavated out of the institution’s two-acre campus following an intricate jigsaw puzzle of stitches and connections that brings a sense of coherence and intelligence to the rambling complex.

Ten years in the making, the anniversary project has seen the RA’s historic home of Burlington House linked to its rear neighbour, 6 Burlington Gardens, for the first time. Visitors will be able to walk from Piccadilly to Mayfair, via an atmospheric subterranean vault and an enticing glimpse of the RA Schools’ art studios, to a new suite of galleries, a lecture theatre, cafes and shops. What Chipperfield describes as his “diagnostic, punctual interventions” range from simply stripping back and whitewashing some spaces, to inserting a new bridge between the buildings that punches through one of the school’s studio walls, as if it had been ramraided by a concrete lorry. Before conservationists cry heresy, it is a fitting disruption to the workmanlike studios, themselves housed in a lean-to shed of exposed steel beams and rivets…read more

Image: A visualisation of the Link Bridge viewed from the RA Schools courtyard. Photograph: David Chipperfield Architects