With one of Britain’s finest examples of brutalism as its precedent at the institution’s Kensington counterpart, the new Battersea Campus of the Royal College of Art is a new step for the world’s leading university for arts and design with a legacy of over 185 years. While RCA emerges at the cusp of its transformation, merging the innovative paradigms of art and design disciplines with STEM-based research and teaching, this bold new addition to its campuses becomes representative of this dynamic juncture. With a nod to the architectural legacy of the 1961 Darwin’s building in Kensington, designed by Sir Hugh Casson and Jim Cadbury-Brown, and the multiple creations by Haworth Tompkins, Switzerland-based architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron physically manifests RCA’s concept of a ‘factory of ideas’ in a 15,000 sqm inter-disciplinary space. Envisioned on a 4370 sqm site along the edges of Howie Street in London, the new campus will house the Rausing Research and Innovation Building, and the Studio Building.
Aligned with the exciting future potential of London’s new creative quarter, the RCA’s new building captures a design language that establishes a marked contrast from the urban layer of English houses and fading Victorian streets in the larger context of Battersea. Exemplifying author Stephen King’s quote, “everything old is new again”, the architectural narrative of London seems to be circling back to the notions of modern architecture. In a scenario such as this, there isn’t a better example than the alma mater of renowned greats, including Sir David Adjaye, Thomas Heatherwick and Zandra Rhodes, to be the flag-bearer of this transformation and renewed architectural inclination. One may conclude that it is this prescient feature of the RCA that is exhibited all along the physical narration of the Battersea campus. With the opening of the £135 million expansion, the most significant campus development in the RCA’s history, the institution also announces a five-year strategy with the intention to use interdisciplinary thinking to solve global issues.
The two significant structures of the new campus, the Studio building and the Rausing Research and Innovation building, complement yet stay discrete from each other, akin to the architectural equivalent of a dialogue between technology and arts. The Studio building displays a unique textured brickwork façade with a vast sawtooth roof and north-facing clerestory windows, structurally supported on slender white columns. Consisting of four storeys of studios and workshops for sculpture, contemporary art practice, and design products, the building is designed to accommodate social and educational spaces for creative transfer and collaboration. As stated by the Chancellor of Royal College of Art, Sir Jony Ive, “The dynamic created by this new building is remarkable. Our working environments have a powerful influence on the way we create and collaborate.”
In a series of interconnected spaces, the workshop is the nucleus of the RCA activities, while the studio spaces span above it, cantilevered towards the street. The large picture windows of the workshops provide seamless visual connectivity between the outdoors and the interior spaces, while the studio creates a cantilevered passageway at the street level. Nicknamed ‘The Hangar’, a double-height flexible zone becomes the heart of the new campus for large-scale events, along with the assembly and exhibition of projects. Located in the studio building, this multifunctional space is a focal point where RCA artists interact with the communities and with each other, thereby proposing a new public realm between Howie Street and the new campus. In the attempt to provide purpose-built spaces for the laboratories, the smaller additional hangar and gallery spaces double up as research and assembly areas. The spaces in the new campus including extended street furniture and visual, audible access through large openings ensure that RCA continues to reach out to and connect with the local community.
The studio building harbours three terraced floorplates, each accommodating 2000 sqm of high-quality workspaces. The concept of creating a structure with flexible spaces, an open-plan layout, and mezzanine floors directly links to the initial idea of a factory-like space. This idea is already in defiance of the language of numerous conventional art universities. While holding on to the raw and rugged aesthetics of the structure’s materiality and design, the Pritzker Prize and RIBA Royal Gold Medal winning practice unties the bulkiness with ample natural ventilation and an immediate connection to the outdoors with its expansive windows. As the clerestory windows in the saw-tooth roof reference a distinctive warehouse aesthetic, the floor-to-ceiling windows along the corridors extend an analogy to Le Corbusier’s ribbon windows when framed in elevation owing to its balanced symmetry, neatly wrapped with the brick parapet encircling the structure.
The metal fin adorned eight-floor structure is home to the Rausing Research and Innovation Building with dedicated independent and confidential research spaces. The seven-layered cubical stack rests above the ground floor workshops with each 560 sqm studio floor designed to occupy flexible research units, along with provisional laboratory space. In the RCA’s new voyage of being the first art and design university in the world to champion a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) vision, the Research building brings together a multitude of labs including The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, The Intelligent Mobility Design Centre and MA Intelligent Mobility, InnovationRCA, The Computer Science Research Centre, and The Materials Science Research Centre.
With core attention to sustainable design and energy efficiency, the new campus uses principles of integrated passive design and its commitment to low and zero-carbon technologies to achieve the BREEAM Excellent rating. The form of the structures contributes amply to the environment-conscious design by regulating daylight, insulation, natural ventilation, while the usage of durable low maintenance materials and adaptable services organisation aids it further. Apart from this, the extensive solar array set within a melange of the blue and brown coloured roofs helps subside drainage requirements and promote biodiversity. With almost £3 million invested for this purpose, the new campus intends to provide a truly sustainable future for RCA. “The RCA campus in Battersea is conceived as a porous and flexible ‘territory’ of platforms upon which the varied needs of the RCA curriculum are given space to change and grow, enabling the transformation of space as needed during this process. The studio and research buildings are designed as communities unto themselves – a place that encourages interactions between students, faculty, and staff. Our intention is also to create a civic connector, encouraging circulation through the site and inviting exchange between members of the RCA community, the neighbourhood, and wider city,” states Herzog & de Meuron in an official release.
Though the architecture is conceptualised in terms of RCA’s history and futuristic outlook, the interior space, in reality, becomes a portrayal of the exceptional work of the college’s students and alumni. The furniture in the new campus comprises many noteworthy designs including Tip Ton chair by Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby for Vitra, Arc Stool by Jemma Ooi & Nathan Philpott for Custhom, E8 table by Mathias Hahn for Zeitraum, Sam Son Chair for Magis (2015), Konstantin Grcic, and Comma by Vitra, among others. In contrast to the refined pieces of industrial design and technologically advanced equipment in the spaces, the interior design reinstates the concept of a rugged aesthetic through the unfinished texture of the ceiling with exposed services running amidst the visible structural reinforcements. The attention to design extends to wayfinding and signage design in the campus as well. The attempt to induce familiarity through the use of Calvert 107 as the way-finding font for the Battersea campus, designed by eminent graphic designer and RCA’s former senior tutor in Graphics, Margaret Calvert, showcases the college’s contribution to industrial design over the years.
Standing tall and mirroring the saw-tooth roofs of the adjacent Dyson and Woo building, the Battersea campus acts as a foreword to the rising cultural assets and growing number of galleries in London’s creative circuit. While it is hard to contemplate a common ‘style of architecture’ followed in the two buildings, with one dynamically exhibiting a raw facelift of a factory, and the other a modern façade eclectically charged through its fins, the contrast points to a deeper search for identity. In that, both the buildings are anchored through the brick façade on the ground floors, while progressing in contrast as they are structured vertically. In a hypothesis of relating the architecture to the ideologies of RCA, this pattern of appearing similar at the surface and diverging in depth may be personified to the largely human perception of technology and art as being extremes, while they can together answer many evident global questions – something the RCA hopes to navigate in this new era of education. “This wonderful new building embodies all that is best and most vital about the RCA – open, collaborative, interdisciplinary and bold,” as said by the Vice-Chancellor of Royal College of Art, Dr. Paul Thompson.
(Text by Sunena V Maju, intern at STIRworld)