RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
Keeper's House: Friends reunited
The Royal Academy is undergoing a major revamp, beginning with the Keeper’s House, where amenities for Friends are being transformed. Hugh Pearman tours the construction site with the architect behind the masterplan, David Chipperfield RA.
David Chipperfield RA at the Keeper’s House building site, where a new restaurant will open later this year. Photo © Richard Dawson. I meet architect David Chipperfield RA on the first day of the Manet exhibition. The doors have just opened and the crowds are pouring in. Through the throng glides Sir David, bang on time. As master planner of the Academy’s expansion and upgrade programme, he’s here to discuss progress. The buzzing crowd perfectly demonstrates why he is needed. The Academy wants to enhance the experience for all of these people – many of them Friends of the RA. The good news starts in the far right-hand corner of Burlington House. This is the self-effacing Keeper’s House. It is a building site now, but by autumn it will offer a much-expanded home for the Friends, who have contributed generously towards it. It will also be open to the public in the evenings, meaning that all visitors to the RA will be able to enjoy this wonderful space. The overall RA masterplan, so long discussed, is actually underway. ‘There’s a sense of momentum and confidence now,’ says Chipperfield. ‘The boat’s already sailing.’
The Keeper’s House project is located in a little-known part of Burlington House to the right of the main entrance. Externally, you see only a neo-Palladian entrance set back from the courtyard and slotted into the corner. But inside the Keeper’s House widens considerably, and has a tiny outdoor space between Albany to the east and the Royal Society of Chemistry to the south. There is also a studio for the Keeper of the RA Schools (present incumbent Eileen Cooper RA). The current spaces for Friends – the Sir Hugh Casson and Belle Shenkman rooms – occupy part of the ground floor and will extend to the level below. The entire space will be restored, refurbished and made accessible with a new external lift.
‘The Friends are really important in their support of the Academy, and we’re not offering the best experience for them at the moment,’says Chipperfield, donning safety gear to walk around the site, stopping first to peer into the existing Casson Room. ‘For instance, we’re going to reorganise this space to give it back some of its grandeur,’ while the Shenkman Room will become more lounge-like.
Down below, meanwhile, in the Keeper’s House basement, previously closed to the public, something entirely new is taking shape: a new restaurant and bar that will open up into the courtyard garden, giving Friends amenities they have never had before. Together with the refurbished existing rooms, new toilets and the external lift, this not only makes a better and bigger place for the Friends to meet but it starts to ease the pressure on the rest of Burlington House as the masterplan moves forward.
The architects for the refurbishment of the Keeper’s House are Long & Kentish, with Chipperfield designing the interiors along with the RA’s long-term conservation architect, Julian Harrap. It’s intricate work, which Chipperfield likens to domestic alterations: after all, Burlington House was once a home and he wants to revive that ambience.
‘Over the years, people have tinkered with these spaces, but now we’ve had the opportunity to stand back and re-think,’ says Chipperfield, as we negotiate some temporary girders holding the whole place up. ‘It is meant to be a bit clubby, with something of its own culture developing. The bar in the evening will be a more informal affair, and the new dining room will also open late. Many Friends come from outside London, for instance, and will want to meet here for a meal or a drink. The challenge is to make a slightly institutional venue bigger, while giving it a more domestic ambience and restoring the architectural fundamentals.’
The Keeper’s House revamp is one of the first initiatives in the overall RA upgrade programme. Beyond that, Burlington House will be linked, through the previously little-seen Royal Academy Schools, to the upgraded building behind at 6 Burlington Gardens, so finally bringing the two buildings together in a single cultural campus.
Already in hand is the restoration of the Architecture Room in Burlington House, originally added by architect Richard Norman Shaw in the early 1880s. Initially, it will be pressed into service as a ‘pop-up’ Friends’ room this spring, while the Casson Room is closed. Once the Keeper’s House opens however, the Architecture Room will be designated as a room for the Royal Academicians to entertain friends, patrons and donors.
Later, together with the link and upgraded Burlington Gardens building, with its lecture theatre, will come a decluttering and expansion of the main RA foyer, making much more space out of what can at present be a bottleneck for visitor traffic.
All of these joined-up pieces add up to something highly significant in the life of the Academy. ‘The impact will be profound,’ Chipperfield concludes. Right and proper then, that the whole programme begins with the Friends.
- The Keeper’s House is due to open to Friends in August and the public in September.
The Sir Hugh Casson and Belle Shenkman rooms for Friends will close on 10 May for renovation work, and during this period there will be a pop-up café in the Architecture Room.
- To comment on the new developments, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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