I am sitting among fellow journalists, listening to the vice-chancellor of the Royal College of Art, Paul Thompson, talk of a £135m new building, the largest ever undertaken in its 185-year history. It will, he says, put the RCA “firmly in the vanguard of creativity at an international level” and enable its “interdisciplinary thinking to solve global issues”. These words, bland going on platitudinous, contrast with the building, which looks forceful and distinctive.
Herein lie the central questions for both the institution and its architecture. Can its continuous growth of student numbers (from 1,040 in 2010 to a projected 3,300 in 2027) and revenue, its pursuit of global status and Treasury patronage, be achieved without compromising the spirits of adventure, curiosity and anarchy that helped shape past alumni such as David Hockney, Ian Dury, Ridley Scott, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili? As Oliver Wainwright wrote in the Guardian last week, there are reasons to be concerned that there may indeed be conflicts between corporate ambition and a free spirit. The building, though, designed by the famous Swiss practice Herzog & de Meuron, creators of Tate Modern, provides a framework for what could be a great art school.
What you first witness is oomph. The building – the RCA’s third campus in London, joining those in South Kensington and White City – stands in Battersea, on the south side of the Thames, amid the visual and social clatter that passes for riverside planning in London: the refined glass box that contains the offices of Foster + Partners; a bulbous block of speculative flats that same practice built next door; ogival rooftop conservatories from the 1980s; Victorian houses and pubs buffed up by modern property values. In contrast, the new structure, arranged along the full length of a street, is consistent and assured.
Most of what you see is brick of a fairly humble type that you can get in builders’ merchants. The faces that you are not usually meant to see – the sides of the bricks mottled by the processes of firing – are here turned outwards. They are then laid in a shallow relief of projection and recession to achieve an effect that John O’Mara, director of Herzog & de Meuron’s London studio, calls “hairy”. At edges and corners it can become deliberately ragged or toothy. In places the solid walls become perforate screens, letting light into the rooms behind.
If it is rugged, it is also streamlined by virtue of the horizontal lines of cantilevered balconies, up to 97m long, that wrap round every side. It has notes of a balcony access council estate and of the Queen Mary. Then, lest the ensemble become too dour, two oversized triangles pop up on the roofline, perky as cartoon cat’s ears, and here signifiers of the north-facing skylights associated with studios and workshops. In another surprise, a stubby tower rises from one corner of the site, whitish and metallic like an office building, vertically accented, contrasting in several respects with the low-flying brickwork.
Inside, the building offers ample high-ceilinged volumes, what the architects call “maximalised containers for studio work”, efficiently stacked over three upper storeys, together with ground floor workshops lavishly furnished with state-of-the-art equipment. The space beneath the big triangular skylights is glorious, and those encircling balconies will allow students to break off from their work for fresh air and views of London. The studios and workshops serve sculpture, contemporary art, moving image and design. The tower provides for research into such things as robotics, advanced manufacturing and “intelligent mobility”, and a centre for incubating startups by RCA graduates.
Thus far, much of the building is a sophisticated and handsome education factory, with a capacity for 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 of the college’s many disciplines and the wider locality, which includes other RCA facilities and creative businesses such as the headquarters of Vivienne Westwood. To this end, they have carved wide passageways through the building at ground level, allowing the public to take short cuts through it. The largest of these, called the “hangar”, doubles as an exhibition space where the output of the college can be displayed.
The architecture doesn’t always take the most obvious route to achieving its ideals of creativity and connectivity. It can be relentless to the point of being forbidding – the balconies, for example, are of uniform width, which contributes to the building’s formal consistency, but possibly makes them less conducive to appropriation and adaptation by students than would a more varied range of dimensions. Those perforated brick screens are intriguing in theory, opaque and transparent at once, but can look imprisoning from the inside.
The hangar is designed to display the full range of the college’s multiplicity of output, up to and including large vehicles, which can be driven through its high fold-away doors. It doesn’t, though, pull off the trick of also being a sympathetic space for more intimate forms of art, its rough brick walls being discouraging. A small photographic show, by the artist Rut Blees Luxemburg and her RCA students, looks a little stranded on a mezzanine gallery that runs round the hangar’s upper level.
The building’s severity is a familiar Herzog & de Meuron characteristic (see also their Tate Modern extension). They prefer attitude over ingratiation, and tend to believe that gratification is better for not being instant. It’s also amplified, for now, by the fact that an important part of the design is not complete. This is a courtyard with an attached cafe, framed both by their straight-lined architecture and by the ramshackle backs of some typical London street houses. Here, it is promised, will be some of the informality and ease of occupation that the rest of the building doesn’t always offer.
In theory, if more students than ever before have access to the best education in art and design, it is something to celebrate. It should be a good thing for Britain if people come from all over the world to find that tuition 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 all concerned.
There’s evidence enough in contemporary higher education that quantity doesn’t always go with quality. The question for the Royal College’s management is whether the generic language of their public pronouncements can somehow translate into teaching that is acute and vital. Their building – robust, sometimes generous, mostly pragmatic, certainly characterful – offers an array of spaces that can be exploited and enjoyed in multiple ways. If it’s unbending in places, that’s erring on the right side. Better than false friendliness, such as you might find in a shopping mall.