A slice of Silicon Valley – architecture inside RCA’s huge £135m new building

smallLike a brutalist lover of factories and multi-storey car parks, Royal College of Art’s huge new studio building in Battersea is a striking thing. Its sturdy brick walls continue for 120 meters along the street, creating a stack of raw concrete slabs that jut out to form long covered balconies that wrap around the building like the decks of an ocean liner. A pair of cartoonish oversized factory roof lights crown the giant Hulk, boasting that it’s a place to make things.

Below, a black asphalt rug extends from the road through the massive firehouse door into the building’s interior, while floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the workshop from the street, where a creative theatre of drilling, sawing and welding takes place . It’s a rough, tough place, and this building wants to show you where filthy, creative chaos can wreak havoc. As long as you don’t screw anything on the precious brick wall or make a mess in the yard, that is.

Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, Form with clever bricks, RCA’s new £135m complex aptly reflects the college’s divisive personality. On the one hand, it wants to be a greenhouse for manufacturing, a power station for physical production.On the other hand, it sets its own style as High-tech Research Centercreating marketable “thought leadership” on the latest digital frontiers.

This dual presence is reflected in the building: while it looks like a factory from one side, from the other it could be the corporate headquarters of a tech company. At the southeast corner, sleek white aluminum fins wrap around a cubic office tower, shading a world of whiteboards, breakout pods and private phone booths. Through the windows, you can see hordes of researchers planning the future of self-driving cars, while others fiddle with drones.feel like Startup incubators flown in from Silicon Valleyanchored to the refurbished remains of London’s industrial past.

Rough and tough...the RCA building by Herzog and de Meuron in Battersea, London.
Rough and tough…the RCA building by Herzog and de Meuron in Battersea, London. Photography: Ivan Ban

The RCA has been dedicated to design and fine arts since its founding in 1837, but the new 16,000-square-meter building heralds its “transformation into a STEAM-focused graduate university” (Art A is now sandwiched between government-approved Science, Technology , engineering and mathematics). As it celebrates its 185th anniversary, the academy is expanding its curriculum to include computer and materials science, robotics, advanced manufacturing, data science and smart mobility, eager to cement its position as a “launchpad for the world’s creative leaders” as Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson said.

This shift is economically motivated.As state funding for higher education is cut – and Conservative PM Rishi Sunak tells artists they may want to be retrained online – Like many other institutions, RCA was forced to become more entrepreneurial. Since Thompson took office in 2009, his student body has grown from 950 to more than 2,300, with overseas students now making up the majority, each paying £29,000 a year. The number of students will soon increase to 3,000, and the Master’s program is being reduced from two years to one, accelerating turnover.

Also recently partnered with the College’s Materials Science Centre in an effort to win lucrative research contracts £5.4m research into textiles in a circular economy. The Treasury paid £54 million for the new building, but only if the college produced a steady stream of 20 new start-ups a year. In the eyes of funders, the RCA is less an art school than a factory forging the pistons of UK plc’s new creative economy. When contemporary art students were recently kicked out of the studio, they didn’t lose their irony, just weeks before their deadline, Make way for events commemorating Sunak himself.

RCA's new Battersea Building.
A refurbished remnant of South London’s industrial past… RCA’s new Battersea Building. Photography: Ivan Ban

The Chancellor’s generosity takes place in the “Hangar”, a double-height space at the centre of the building, conceived as a covered street for exhibitions, events and year-end performances. The rolled asphalt of the road extends into the interior, polished to a smooth terrazzo finish, while the mezzanine offers a view of the action below. But it seemed more suited to a fundraiser than a student exhibitor’s needs: Brick walls banned hanging work.

Likewise, the sculpture department once enjoyed a sprawling yard where toxic resins and molten iron could be poured, and now the workshop floor overflows into a courtyard that will be accessible to the public and features a coffee shop where passersby can sit and enjoy Creative wonder. “The Open University” sounds like a good idea on paper, but the health and safety implications that come with it mean that students aren’t actually allowed to exercise here. “They have plenty of space in the new workshop,” Thompson said. “So they shouldn’t need to work outside.”

The architects clearly took visual cues from RCA’s brutalist 1960s home in South Kensington (some departments still exist), which was built by HT Cadbury-Brown, but management had better remember the permissive culture that created it.As critic Ian Nairn wrote: “The building is designed to be used, worn, flipped and cuddled like the big fluffy dog ​​in the house.” Now, there are more management sensitivities in play – this is in the college’s Dyson BuildingBuilt in 2012, Thompson describes it as his “funky art factory” – where the desire to show off an artistic event sometimes trumps actual need.

Covered streets for exhibitions… The ‘Hangar’ of the new Royal Academy of Arts building in Battersea will be open to the public. Photography: Ivan Ban

Still, overall, Herzog & de Meuron has a versatile bone for whatever comes next. The studios are numerous and well-appointed, the open studio levels are ample and sturdy. A protective 100mm concrete “play layer” has been poured on the floor of the sculpture studio on the ground floor (following repeated pipe and cable cuts in the previous building), while a solid steel suspension grid hovers on the top of the head. Perforated brick screens shade the windows for privacy, although they make the space feel dim, with all the lights on at noon. The floor above, for the contemporary art practice, is a brighter spot, with all-glass walls leading to long, continuous balconies, delineated by the studio with “sacrificial” timber partitions that can take a good hit.

Finally, the towering top floor is flooded with daylight under the gigantic northern lights and looks perfect for a painting studio. Oddly enough, it is home to innovative design engineering and design products. Students have yet to move in, but the modular cubicle studio hints at a desk-based workplace, rather than the kind of activity that might usefully occupy a six-metre-high space. Meanwhile, painting students across the street are demanding more space, with as many as six currently occupying a studio that was intended for two.

There is no such overcrowding in the new “Robot Hangar”, which links the studio building with the research tower (master students are barred from entry for confidentiality reasons). Here, there’s a huge mesh space for drones and a tank for submersibles, while the Smart Mobility Lab next door features three large bays that allow vehicles to drive off the street. “The public will be able to see a sleek concept car,” Thompson said.The upper floors are dedicated to research, with AR and VR visualization labs, and Innovative RCA Entrepreneurship Center, culminating in the top floor meeting room. Painfully, the sweeping views across London are mostly reserved for outside guests.

Weston Studios on the new design and innovation campus of the Royal College of Art.
Weston Studios on the new design and innovation campus of the Royal College of Art. Photography: Ivan Ban

The tower’s research will address everything from the climate crisis to ageing populations, artificial intelligence and the future of cities, which are at the heart of RCA’s new five-year strategy: “Using Interdisciplinary Thinking to Solve Global Problems”. That’s laudable, but the academy may start by addressing issues closer to home.

Student protests and employee strikes have rocked the RCA over the past few years, even before the turmoil of the pandemic.Complaints range from inability to use facilities to Valuable work destroyed in a botched cleanupwhile a high percentage of academic staff on temporary contracts leading some to call it “Physical Education in Higher Education”.The college has recently acknowledged some staff requests, but Many students are still frustrated with their experiences.

“I felt like I was being taken away,” said an overseas student who moved to London with a partner, both of whom quit their previous jobs. “People make a lot of sacrifices to get here with no regard for the student experience at all. Everything is a struggle, from trying to book a limited seminar slot to accessing studios on evenings and weekends. It’s a struggle with senior The endless battle of management just to get what we’ve paid for.”

Others have spoken of the extreme lack of communication, the Byzantine complaints process and how slow the college has been to return to pre-Covid operations.

“They’re taking in too many students and it’s falling apart,” said a second-year student. “I’ve never experienced an institution where all the students are always so angry. It’s really exhausting. They just use us as cash machines.”

Thompson countered those complaints. “It’s all about balance,” he said. “Some students want more space and longer opening hours, but if you ask others if they are willing to pay extra for it, they will say no.” He said the RCA had now appointed a new student experience Head, he will work on further issues and students are being compensated for lost work and teaching days as a result of the strike.

But a spokesman for the Students’ Union was not holding out much hope: “This is not an easy problem to solve. The day-to-day mechanisms of how students learn and create are closely related to the RCA decision-making body, which is more concerned with public perception and having a voice in the UK economy. There are potential differences. The new building represents this ‘marketable creativity’ – not so much the needs of students as it is to make the college more attractive to business interests.”

Thompson denies that students’ needs have been downplayed. “The student experience is something we take very, very seriously. It’s never been easy for any university or any student during the Covid-19 pandemic. The proof of the pudding is in what our students who have moved in so far have felt about this building. At the reception.”

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