When the Royal College of Art arrived in Battersea in 1991, it set up a curious symbiosis with its light-industrial surroundings. Strange survivals from previous incarnations of the neighbourhood as a site of manufacture and making coexisted with the new era of luxury riverside housing and architects’ offices.
Its most vivid manifestation was the way the 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 much industry as it was creative, but it was still being gentrified. And while you might think that the arrival of arguably the world’s premier postgraduate design school would only accelerate that gentrification, the opposite case is credible, too.
That is because the RCA’s new £135mn main building is as much a place of production as learning, and it looks suitably industrial. Designed by the architects of Tate Modern, Herzog & de Meuron, it builds on that same language of bricky topography. But, unlike the Tate and its twisting tower, this is a striated cliff, a stack of tough-looking industrial brick stretched out and lining a new thoroughfare through the heart of the college’s dispersed campus. The building gives the college a sense of gravity, a force to hold it all together.
Paul Thompson, vice-chancellor of the RCA, tells me that Herzog & de Meuron’s design was selected because it was the only one that knitted the institution into the surrounding streets, acknowledging the complexity of context and creating a sense of urbanity rather than a self-contained 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 run through it.
At its heart is a huge volume which the architects and staff refer to as the Hangar. Its floor of shiny tarmac looks oddly luxurious, even though it is exactly the same stuff as on the street outside, only meticulously polished. It suggests this is a continuation of the street, an ambiguous semi-public space at the scale and texture of the city, rather than of the building’s interior. Intended for events, exhibitions and the production and display of large-scale artworks, installations or the vehicles designed in the automotive workshops, the glass walls at either end open up fully to create a dramatic passage through the structure.
A smaller hangar sits as a discrete unit within the building. Housing the robotics department, it is populated by mechanical arms, a net to contain flying drones and a tank to test aquatic ones. It is a space to provoke with questions about what exactly goes on in an “arts” school. Windows on to the new workshops give glimpses into what was often a closed world of work and study, suggesting that these tools and processes continue the college’s roots in that Victorian combination of art and industry, the application of creativity.
The building’s factory-type sawtooth roofs echo those of the existing campus (designed by architects Haworth Tompkins) and the studio spaces are bright, expansive and wrapped with generous brick terraces.
The Rausing Research and Innovation Building is a little more contained (the IP generated here has huge commercial value at the cutting edge of design). An eight-storey stack, it also contains InnovationRCA, the college’s centre for entrepreneurship and business innovation, fostering student and alumni start-ups. The building gets lighter as it rises, from brick to lightweight aluminium fins higher up.
Mostly, though, there is brick. Masses of it. Using the tones created by degrees of baking — colours from mud-brown to indigo via burnt toast — it has an elemental presence accentuated by subtly shifting patterns in the masonry, sometimes staggering the bricks to create texture and shadow. You would expect this from the architects of Tate Modern and the mountainous Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, but it still seems surprising that in this city of brick it is a Swiss practice that has reintroduced a serious approach to the material — something very different from veneers of stick-on brick, the default language of the city’s new housing blocks.
Project architect John O’Mara says the inspiration was the RCA’s Darwin Building, the brick tower in Kensington Gore designed by Hugh Casson and HT Cadbury-Brown (1960-63), built to a tight budget and long ignored but now a little more appreciated. It has lasted well, a serious, modern, robust and workmanlike place fostering intense creativity, building on the brick architecture of the Albert Hall and the bays of Kensington’s mansion blocks. Herzog & de Meuron’s new building is at an altogether different scale yet it, too, anchors the college in a slightly surprising neighbourhood.
While one end of Battersea seems intent on hiding its huge brick power station behind blocks wrapped by star architects, Herzog & de Meuron has resurrected brick as a thing of weight, grain and architectural charisma. If it is not a power station, then it is at least a powerhouse of design.