When the Royal College of Art arrived in Battersea in 1991, it struck a curious symbiosis with its light industrial surroundings. Strange remnants of the neighborhood’s previous incarnations as a manufacturing and manufacturing site coexisted with the new era of luxury riverside housing and architectural offices.
Its most striking manifestation was how RCA’s digital animation studios existed in one half of a modular building, the other half of which was occupied by a garage. The site was as industrial as it was creative, but it was still gentrified. And while you might think that the arrival of the world’s first postgraduate design school would only accelerate this gentrification, the opposite case is also believable.
Indeed, RCA’s new £135m main building is as much a place of production as a place of learning, and it looks suitably industrial. Designed by Tate Modern architects Herzog & de Meuron, it draws on that same language of brick topography. But, unlike the Tate and its winding tower, it is a ridged cliff, a rugged-looking pile of industrial bricks that stretches out and borders a new thoroughfare in the heart of the university’s scattered campus. The building gives the college a sense of gravity, a force to hold it together.
RCA Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson tells me Herzog & de Meuron’s design was chosen because it was the only one that knitted the institution into the surrounding streets, acknowledging the complexity of the context and creating a sense of urbanity rather than a contained self-object. Although it is clearly woven into the fabric of the city, it is so large that it also creates its own streetscape, allowing the city to pass through it.
At its heart is an enormous volume that the architects and staff call the Hangar. Its shiny tarmac floor looks oddly luxurious, even though it’s exactly the same as the street outside, but meticulously polished. This suggests that it is a continuation of the street, a semi-public space ambiguous in scale and texture of the city, rather than the interior of the building. Intended for events, exhibitions and for the production and presentation of large-scale artwork, installations or vehicles designed in the automotive workshops, the glass walls at each end open completely to create a spectacular passage through the structure.
A smaller shed forms a discreet unit in the building. Housing the robotics department, it is populated with mechanical arms, a net to hold the flying drones, and a tank to test the aquatic drones. It is a provocative space with questions about what exactly happens in an “arts” school. Windows into the new workshops provide a glimpse into what was often a closed world of work and study, suggesting that these tools and processes carry on the college’s roots in this Victorian combination of art and industry, l application of creativity.
The building’s factory-like sawtooth roofs echo those of the existing campus (designed by architects Haworth Tompkins) and studio spaces are bright, expansive, and wrapped in generous brick terraces.
The Rausing Research and Innovation Building is a little more contained (the intellectual property generated here has enormous commercial value at the cutting edge of design). An eight-story stack, it also contains InnovationRCA, the college’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation, which nurtures student and alumni start-ups. The building becomes lighter as it rises, from the brickwork to the lighter aluminum fins higher up.
Most of the time, however, there is brick. Masses of it. Using the tones created by degrees of firing – colors ranging from mud brown to indigo to toast – it has an elemental presence accentuated by subtly shifting patterns in the stonework, sometimes shifting the bricks to create texture and shadow. You’d expect it from the architects of Tate Modern and Hamburg’s mountainous Elbphilharmonie, but it still seems surprising that in this city of bricks it was a Swiss practice that reintroduced a serious approach to material – something very different from stick-on-brick veneers, the default language of new city housing blocks.
Project architect John O’Mara says the inspiration was RCA’s Darwin Building, the brick tower in Kensington Gore designed by Hugh Casson and HT Cadbury-Brown (1960-63), built on a tight budget and a long ignored but now somewhat more appreciated. It has endured well, a serious, modern, rugged, working-class place fostering intense creativity, drawing on the brick architecture of Albert Hall and the spans of Kensington’s mansion blocks. The new Herzog & de Meuron building is on a completely different scale, but it also anchors the college in a somewhat surprising district.
While one end of Battersea seems determined to hide its massive brick powerhouse behind blocks wrapped by star architects, Herzog & de Meuron has resurrected brick as a thing of weight, grit and architectural charisma. If it’s not a powerhouse, then at least it’s design power.