Seeing the light
In Rembrandt's paintings, and in Vermeer's, there is always a point of maximum reflection - a necklace, a helmet, a raised glass, a pearl earring. A small shop, redesigned by Eva Jiricna Architects, is that point of maximum reflection at the Royal Academy: a glistening fusion of glass and light set off by the damask walls and dark timber of the main galleries.
The visitor cannot fail to miss this beacon of light. There it is, on your right as you head for the dark portals that will take you into whatever exhibition is on in the main first floor gallery - the glories of Venice, Caravaggio, Rembrandt's women. And even if you do manage to avoid it on the way in, you will find there is no way out at the far end except through the shop. Before refurbishment, a mezzanine blocked the doorway at the east end of the shop. It has now been removed.
Eva Jiricna's name is inextricably associated with the use of glass in architecture - from the glass staircase she designed for Joseph, Knightsbridge in the late '70s, to the new Orangery in her native Prague. She readily admits that glass is one of her favourite materials but says that its choice for the Royal Academy was based on its appropriateness for the project. 'Glass is able to diffuse light into the space and you can put it in a historic context without competing with the existing historic fabric, or introducing any note of discord, ' she says, and she lists some of its other relevant virtues: 'It has low maintenance, it's easy to clean and cheap to replace and - most important - you can see through it and light it from all directions. You can even see the things on the bottom shelves and you can read the prices.'
The use of structural glass at the Academy brings out a little appreciated aspect of the material - its beauty and solidity in section.
Seen flat, glass may be colourless and transparent; seen sideways on, it is coloured and solid. Looking around the shop, you notice that the planes of reflective display surfaces are scored by bands of icy blue glass edging in varying thickness, set off by the brilliantly white walls and ceiling of the room.
The most prominent new feature in the shop is the central circular counter, partly enclosed by a curved glass screen which rises to a point towards the rear. The counter top is in chunky 19mm structural glass, below which a narrower shelf is fixed at wheelchair height. Opaque film fixed to the inner surface of the counter base conceals any belowcounter jumble and staff movements. The circular shape of the counter reduces the visible impact of any queue and leaves maximum room for other shoppers to circulate around the display areas.
The walls are dressed with vertical glass panels standing proud of the existing walls to conceal the lighting behind them. The panels are made of toughened glass with a ceramic coating applied so that they act as light diffusers. Vertical glass uprights have holes at regular intervals, lined with stainless steel sleeves; glass shelves and other display components rest on stainless steel pegs inserted into the steel-lined holes. Postcards are displayed in perspex trays secured to the vertical perforated panels by elegant V-shaped stainless steel fixings.
The tops of the glass display units are held together by white powder-coated folded metal units which carry low-voltage downlighters and fluorescent tubes serving as uplighters.White curved metal reflectors, attached to the metal units, throw the reflected light back down into the main retail space. In each of the four corners, special square units with cut-away edges, contain audio video displays.
Further display areas are provided in tall glass 'towers' with integral lighting, containing some of the star items for sale and viewable from all angles, like pieces of sculpture. Smaller towers contain smaller products. Plinths supporting the towers are clad in satin-finished stainless steel.
The most startling addition is the large pendant central light, shaped like two magician's hats joined at the brims. Two layers of material form the theatrically-shaped shade, a taut inner layer of nylon-weave flame-retardant spinnaker sail cloth and a looser outer layer of fine grey laser gauze. The light emitted is programmed to change from white to pale blue, echoing the twin colouring of glass - white and blue. Other secondary light fittings are mounted on a track suspended from the ceiling, and so delicately engineered that they are barely noticeable.
There are other shopping areas in the Academy, but they are reserved for goods relating to current exhibitions - only the shop proper holds more general stock. Its new fitout makes it a more enticing place than ever.