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Let's keep the context of Royal College of Art

letters

My attention has been drawn to recent comment in the AJ about the Royal College of Art (AJ 13.3.03/20.3.03)). No architect likes to see his work demolished or altered (even if Grade II listed and awarded the RIBA London Architectural Bronze Medal for 1963), but that sentiment is secondary to my objection to the proposal on grounds of context.

In 1960, in planning discussions, context was considered paramount (I think it still is).

The context of the area, the Royal Albert Hall, Norman Shaw's Mansions and Lowther House, the Albert Memorial and the grand axis of the 1862 Exhibition area, the 'Museums Area' from the Natural History Museum to the Memorial. The principal unit then was the Darwin Building, to fit in and balance this concept.

The totality was a group of large-scale, north-facing, sombre buildings looking towards the exuberance of the Memorial.

The present proposal trivialises and destroys this concept.

Published perspectives appear deliberately to obscure the truth.

One shows the building at night, all windows lit up, everything around in the dark; the other taken from Kensington Gardens with a large tree (in the garden) in full leaf, obscuring all but the new proposal.

I would like to refer to Nairn's London (Penguin Books 1966, page 130).Nairn was a respected observer and friend of the AJ's.

He wrote of the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore (HT Cadbury-Brown, 1961): 'This is a very good place to feel the husky, direct temper of young British architects. It is the opposite of firework; it smoulders through to your consciousness with quiet intensity: purple brick and concrete aggregate, humped up against the Albert Hall like a gruff egalitarian greeting. This building is meant to be used and worn and thumbed over and hugged, like the family's big woolly dog.

Seven storeys of classrooms, the staircase coming where it needs to: a lecture theatre on the ground floor, and bolshie paired roof-lights on top nudging the sky along with the Boeings and Caravelles. All of it is done with feeling for the students (compare the glacial complacent emptiness of the new Imperial College, a few yards farther south): all of it is troubled, asking, questioning, scrutinizing.

Perhaps it serves the wrong college; a science department would desperately need this; the RCA has, already, too much of the feeling of God's elect.'

It seems fashionable now to give buildings names, a caricature image. The Ark, the Shard (War Museum), the Gherkin, the Ellipse.

I see the Ellipse, not as that rather weak shape but as drawn by Peter Brookes in his Nature Notes (The Times). It would be a leech or louse sucking blood from a corner of the Darwin Building and pushing its way into Kensington Gore.

H T Cadbury-Brown OBE Aldeburgh, Suffolk

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