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It's time for the RA to take an architectural lead

The Royal Academy’s architecture team has provided the most thoughtful lecture programme in London for many years now, writes Paul Finch

The Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen, whose new building by Rem Koolhaas is just beginning construction, is a reminder of what a vital part such a centre can play in the cultural life of a city and country.

DAC recently hosted a meeting of people who run architecture centres and architecture museums from across the world to discuss what they do, why, and how to be more effective. Curiously, not much has been written about the origins of architecture centres, though the first architecture museum is thought to have been the one built in Moscow in the 1930s.

Looking back, the first time I heard about the subject was in 1974 when the then Director of Public Affairs at the RIBA, Malcolm MacEwen, published Crisis in Architecture. One of his proposals was that the institute turn itself into an ‘architecture centre’, that is to say an outward-facing organisation engaged with the public, rather than a navel-gazing professional institution.

In this he was at least in part agreeing with Richard Rogers, who in 1969 wrote: ‘I would hope to see the RIBA thrown open to all interested in the environmental problem. It should be a well-serviced centre for environmental studies … more like Cedric Price’s Fun Palace than a marble mausoleum’.

It was an idea that seemed to be in the air and, during the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, centres sprang up across the world. The recent history is chequered, with organisations like the NAI in Rotterdam suddenly deprived of funding and being forced to amalgamate with other institutions. Agit-prop centres like Storefront in New York have flourished, but the picture is patchy.

Meanwhile, cities across the globe have launched architecture weeks, biennales, triennales and design festivals. It seems an unstoppable trend. Yet there is one organisation, here in London, which seems surprisingly reticent in all this, even though it has claims to be the first (of sorts) architecture centre in the world. I refer to the Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768 with some architects among the artists who formed, then and now, the majority of its members.

Despite their minority position, architects have served the RA well, providing a majority of honorary treasurers and a significant number of presidents (six out of 15 since World War I). The Academy’s architecture team has provided the most thoughtful and culturally connected talks and lecture programme in London for many years now, and a long-running series of small exhibitions.

Despite all this, and despite the glittering roll-call of architect academicians, it has not thus far proved possible to establish the RA as an automatic port of call for those interested in architecture, not least because the big exhibitions on the subject are few and far between. There were attempts to bring in the Architecture Foundation, and to incorporate the RIBA Drawings Collection, both of which fell through.
But port of call it could easily be, following the purchase of Burlington Gardens, and the retrofit plans now being pursued. Indeed an exhibition of the work of Richard Rogers, marking his 80th birthday, will take place in some of the new galleries this summer. This would be a good moment to mark the significance of architecture to the RA’s life by committing to a permanent architecture space.

Charles Saumarez Smith, who has a good track record of working with architects, should seize the moment, cut through the filo-pastry layers of Academy decision-making, and place the mother of the arts firmly on a little bit of the RA map. With the approval of the Academicians, of course.

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