I Seated among other reporters, I listen to Vice-Chancellor of the Royal College of Art, Paul Thompson, talk about a new £135m building, the largest ever built in its 185-year history. It will “put RCA firmly at the forefront of innovation internationally” and enable its “interdisciplinary thinking to solve global problems”. These cliched words contrast with the building, which appears strong and distinctive.
Herein lies the central questions of the institution and its structure. Can it continue to grow in student enrollment (from 1,040 in 2010 to 3,300 expected in 2027) and revenue, its pursuit of global standing and Treasury patronage without compromising the spirit of adventure, curiosity and chaos that former alumni like z David Hockney, Ian Dory, Ridley Scott, Tracy Emin and Chris Ofili? As Oliver Wainwright wrote in guardian Last week, there was reason to worry that there might be a conflict between entrepreneurial ambition and free spirit. However, the building, designed by the famous Swiss office Herzog & de Meuron, creators of the Tate Modern, provides the setting for an impressive art school.
What you see first is a pep. The building – RCA’s third campus in London along with those in South Kensington and White City – stands in Battersea, on the south bank of the Thames, amid the visual and social hustle that goes by for London’s riverside planning: the elegant glass box which contains the offices of Foster + Partners; an onion block of speculative flats built by the same adjoining practice; ogival conservatories of the 1980s; Victorian style homes and pubs revived with modern estate values. In contrast, the new structure arranged along the entire street is consistent and self-confident.
Most of what you see are fairly humble type molds that you can get at hardware stores. The faces you don’t normally want to see—the mottled brick sides from the firing process—are turned inside out here. They are then placed in a flat pattern of projection and indentation to achieve an effect that John O’Mara, director of the Herzog & de Meuron studio in London, describes as “hairy”. It may become frayed or jagged at edges and corners. In some places, solid walls turn into holes that let light into the rooms behind.
Despite its strength, it is also streamlined thanks to the horizontal lines of the cantilevered balconies, up to 97 meters long, that wrap around each side. It contains urban property records with access to the balcony and Queen Mary. Then, lest the group become too stiff, two huge triangles appear on the roofline, which are attached to a cartoon cat’s ear and here are signs of the north-facing skylights connected to studios and workshops. And as another surprise, in one corner of the site a burly tower rises, whitish and metallic like an office building, protruding vertically, contrasting in many ways with the low-flying masonry.
Inside, the building offers large, high-ceilinged spaces for what the architects call “maximum studio work containers” efficiently stacked on three upper floors, along with ground floor workshops lavishly furnished with the latest equipment. The space beneath the large triangular skylights is delightful, and these wrap-around balconies allow students to take a break from their outdoor work and look out over London. Studios and workshops offer sculpture, contemporary art, motion pictures, and design. The tower features research on topics such as robotics, advanced manufacturing, “smart mobility” and a hub for creating startups by RCA alumni.
So far, much of the building is a beautiful, advanced educational factory with a capacity of up to 1,000 students, but the architects want it to be more than that. They call it the “civic link,” and it’s something that can foster interaction between students from the college’s many disciplines and the broader community, which includes other RCA facilities and creative businesses such as Vivienne Westwood headquarters. To this end, they carved wide walkways through the building at ground level, allowing the public to take shortcuts. The largest of them, called “Hangar”, also serves as a display space in which college results can be displayed.
Architecture does not always take the most obvious path to achieving its ideals of creativity and connection. It can be harsh to the point of prohibition – balconies, for example, are uniform in width, which contributes to the formal uniformity of the building but may make it less suitable for students’ customization and adaptation of a wider range of dimensions. These perforated stone walls are interesting in theory, opaque and transparent at the same time, but can appear trapping from the inside.
The hangar is designed to show the full range of the college’s diverse offerings, right up to the larger vehicles that can be driven through its long folding doors. However, it also fails to be a sympathetic space for more intimate art forms, its rough brick walls feeling intimidating. A small photo gallery of the artist Root Place Luxembourg and her students at RCA looks a bit stuck in a mezzanine gallery that wraps around the top floor of the barn.
The austerity of the building is a well-known feature of Herzog & de Meuron (see also Extension of the Tate Modern). They prefer the position of pandering and tend to believe that gratification is better because it is not instantaneous. It is also currently reinforced by the fact that an important part of the design has not yet been completed. This is a courtyard café, surrounded by both the linear architecture and the crumbling back walls of some typical London street houses. Here, promised, there will be some of that informality and ease of use that the rest of the building doesn’t always provide.
In theory, there is reason to celebrate when more students have access to the best education in art and design. It must be a good thing for Britain that people come from all over the world to find lessons here. The multidisciplinary nature of Imperial College – the fact that people can study ancient skills such as ceramics and printing alongside robotics and artificial intelligence – should also benefit everyone involved.
There is ample evidence in modern higher education that quantity does not always equal quality. The question for the management of the Imperial College is whether the general language of their public statements can somehow be translated into a sharp and vital lesson. Its construction – rugged, sometimes grandiose, often realistic, certainly full of character – offers a range of spaces that can be used and enjoyed in a variety of ways. If it’s stiff in places, it’s a right-hand side error. Better than the fake friendliness you might find in the mall.