The Royal College of Art sits strikingly amongst the many Georgian white stuccoed terraces and red Victorian mansions of Kensington. It was a brave move on Westminster’s part to give the building the go-ahead in the late fifties, given its context – it sits right next to the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Organists and the Albert Memorial. It resides on one of the most hallowed areas of arts ground, Albertopolis, reaching from the Victoria and Albert Museum and Natural History Museum up to Kensington Gardens, and including two other renowned institutions, the Royal College of Music and Imperial College.
It is a fitting place for the Royal College of Art. Although it began its life at Somerset House in 1837, by 1863 it was housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and has since enjoyed a long history in this area. The present college buildings were designed in 1956-59, on an excellent site allocated to the Ministry of Education for that exact purpose, facing the park and between the Albert Hall and Queen’s Gate, and enabled by a government grant. This meant that all the departments and the administration could at last be brought together on one site for the first time.
The buildings’ austere appearance is perhaps explained by the extremely tight budget, which led to the use of the simplest materials. The building was planned as three blocks. The workshop block, now named the Darwin Building after the Rector at that time, ran along the northern boundary of the site, where height was not restricted. The Gulbenkian wing runs along the east of the site and was made possible by a generous donation from the Trustees of the Gulbenkian Foundation, as the government was unable or unwilling to fund this block. This gave the college a much-needed hall and exhibition space. A common room block was planned for the south-west corner of the site, which was to link to the teaching block by a bridge, and to the Gulbenkian Hall by a library and lecture theatre.
The college chose to use its own staff to design the building: H T Cadbury-Brown who taught in the sculpture department, in association with Sir Hugh Casson, then Professor of Interior Design, and Robert Gooden, Professor of Silversmithing and Jewellery. As staff, not only were they in a unique position to understand the needs of the college, but also their authorship firmly ties the design to the institution, which is most unusual and adds to the historical significance of the buildings.
The design paid careful attention to its prestigious site. The Darwin Building has been limited in height to balance Norman Shaw’s Albert Hall Mansions, which flank the opposite side of the Albert Hall. The brick cladding chosen is dark in colour in order to mirror the then uncleaned red brick of the Shaw buildings, and the regular but broken skyline clearly responds to the gables of Shaw’s block. The design is confident and stands up well to its neighbours. The entrance block, the Gulbenkian wing, was deliberately kept low to allow striking views of the Albert Hall from the college, and the main college entrance was specifically placed to facilitate a fantastic view through the portico of the Albert Hall and on down Kensington Gore. The relationship between this core group of three buildings was of utmost importance to the design, and Cadbury-Brown was keenly aware that they should play together to obtain a total effect (‘Royal College of Art, Kensington’ The Architect & Building News,9 June 1965, p 1084). The open space was seen as an important and impressive part of the setting.
At the time that these college buildings were commissioned, it was envisaged that the college would be able to expand onto the site further to the west, fronting onto Queen’s Gate, once the lease expired in 1973. Provision of accommodation for the Schools of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Design would then be made. However, planning permission was turned down for this building, again designed by Cadbury-Brown and team, as it required the demolition of a number of buildings at the top end of Queen’s Gate, which would result in the proposed new building abutting Norman Shaw’s last remaining house on this road, following the demolition of two others during the expansion of Imperial College. An article in The Architectural Review in July 1973 makes many interesting comments about Westminster’s decision not to grant planning permission. It points out that as it granted permission for the RCA to establish itself in a new main building, should it not also recognise the need for the institution to develop? The council zoned most of this area in 1958 for educational purposes, thereby firmly recognising the legacy of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Yet the reviewer claims that under rising pressure to protect buildings of any character whatsoever, Nos 197-200 Queen’s Gate were listed Grade 3 in 1970, meaning that the RCA would have to use these buildings for non-technical education as they were unsuitable to convert to large studios. In the event, what happened is that an extension was built at the back of these buildings to house the remaining departments, entered from Jays Mews.
The points raised in the article are interesting, as well as being current. Should Westminster have granted planning permission? Were they short-sighted in not doing so? Allowing the development would have created buildings better suited for use by the arts college, rather than the odd conversions that have resulted. But this issue is raised frequently; not least when the Society is instrumental in listing a building it feels to be of special architectural interest, but which may affect future development. The Royal College of Art was listed in 2001 at Grade II, which recognised the college as a particularly fine example of a high-quality cultural institution of the 1960s. The college is still desperate for space, and its on site options are limited. The second phase of Cadbury-Brown building, had it been permitted, would probably have provided more accommodation than presently on this north-east corner site of Queen’s Gate and Kensington Gore, but even so it is doubtful whether it would have solved the problem. At present the sculpture school and half the painting school are off-site. Obviously, it would be ideal to re-unite all the departments together on one site, but the resulting proposal is a scheme to which to Society is wholly opposed.
Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners are working on a design which would see the complete removal of the Gulbenkian wing and its replacement with what has been nicknamed at the college ‘The Ellipse’ – a glass building oval in shape, which rests in plan form at a slight diagonal to the main Darwin Building, and which reaches up in height to the main building’s double-height spaces at sixth floor level. The Society views the entrance block as an intrinsic part of the design, and believes that it balances against the austere bulk of the taller buildings and forms an entrance that is clearly expressed and which is human in scale. Cadbury-Brown intended the entrance to be on the east side of the college and to relate to the Albert Hall, but with the Grimshaw design the entrance moves to the north. The proposed new building would also block the views of the Albert Hall, which formed a large part of the rationale behind the original design. The Society finds that the proposed scheme has no regard for the listed structure, and destroys the sensitive balance Cadbury-Brown clearly intended in the buildings’ juxtaposition. The scheme also shows no respect for the setting of the college and its considered relationship to the Albert Hall and Albert Hall Mansions discussed earlier. Clearly, this site is the only choice open to the Royal College of Art in terms of increasing their space provision, and unfortunately the sole option for them is to build upwards. Yet it is quite remarkable that a school of art and design of such repute and international standing has such a lack of regard for its own outstanding buildings.
Westminster has been accused once already of being short-sighted and they seem set to put the record straight. Although the Society has viewed the scheme, it has not yet gone to planning. It was due to go by the end of July, and although we saw the scheme recently we may not have seen the final submission. Westminster has been involved in informal discussions on the proposals over the past year and the scheme had reached a virtually final stage before we were invited to view it. While the need for space at the college is pressing, surely it cannot justify the destruction of the integrity of these marvellous purpose-built art college buildings, as well as their relationship to the Albert Hall and Albert Hall Mansions by altering so significantly the spatial relationship they have to each other. It seems like a case of déjà-vu, and while the Society does want the building to function successfully and for the purpose for which it was intended, it cannot endorse these current proposals.