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The value of voids

Nicholas Grimshaw's proposal for a new block for the Royal College of Art at Kensington Gore threatens the integrity of Cadbury Brown's fine listed building and with it the open space so central to the Modern Movement, warns James Dunnett

The current planning application from Nicholas Grimshaw to build a new block for the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore raises fundamental questions of architectural and urban sensibility. At stake is not only the integrity of Cadbury Brown's elegant listed design of 1959, but of one of the major urban compositions in London.

The Modern Movement - of which the RCA is a sophisticated post-war example - posited a new kind of city, a new kind of urbanism, one not based on the traditional concept of the closed spaces of streets and squares, but on a composition and contrast of forms in space. The spatial continuum was not simply to be neutral (the misapprehension of the designers of many tower block estates), it was to be moulded, manipulated, and articulated by the structures within it.

This more open and dynamic spatial character was a response not only to the desire to separate the various transport modes previously channelled together in the 'corridor street', but also to extend the greater spatial openness advancing constructional technology was encouraging within architecture itself, and to counteract the grimy deserts of the sprawling industrial cities with a sense of the openness and greenness of nature. In this, it took forward the social and spiritual objectives of the 'Garden City' planners. A sense of that space, and the freedom it offered, was central to the Modern architectural ideal.

Space was to be recognised as having a value, a presence, as real as the buildings themselves.

It is a sense, however, that seems to be disappearing along with those who had direct contact with the 'founders' of the Modern Movement. The fantastic constructions of De-Constructivism and the products of High-Tech wizardry remain objects. They do not address the primacy of space or the social ideal of which it was an expression.

Foster's Willis Faber Dumas building of the 1970s, for example, was praised for its innovation in following the back edge of the pavement line, filling its site nearly completely and reinforcing the nature of the streets around it as 'corridors'. It did seek to return, at least to its occupants, the space it took up, with a garden at roof level. But it did not offer significant space or spatial views for the pedestrian on the ground. His Swiss Re building, now approaching completion, reflects the same approach - while its plan follows a pure geometrical form (the circle), independent of the site boundaries, the residual spaces around the circle have no positive value. The published image of the most recent Foster project in the City relies for its viewpoint on the space in front of the 1960s Commercial Union and P&O towers - there is no other significant public space available. Also benefiting from the CU plaza is Richard Rogers' Lloyds building, which creates no ground-level space of its own.

Since the abolition of plot ratio planning controls under Margaret Thatcher, the creation of such spaces has became effectively impossible - the floorspace now available cannot be foregone. The result is projects such as the Heron Tower, with a plot ratio more than three times the previously allowed maximum and no ground-level open space to speak of, or Renzo Piano's 'Shard', which would exploit its site even more intensively.

In Modern Movement terms, the point about tall buildings was the space between them, or the space around the foot, which is absent.

The spirit that created Mies' Seagram plaza in New York and his aborted Mansion House plaza in London - spaces intended to be of as much or more benefit to the occupants of the buildings around them as to the pedestrian at ground level - has passed. The impact of this loss of consciousness of external space can be seen in recent projects affecting existing buildings, including the RCA.

As part of the 'regeneration' of Lubetkin & Tecton's Priory Green estate, a two-storey community building (by JCMT Architects) is currently being built for Peabody across the mouth of the 'U' layout, blocking the principal public view of the grandest Modern Movement space in Islington and interrupting the green space that ran from Pentonville Road north as far as Wynford House - the head of the 'U'. Not only is the spatial experience spoiled for the pedestrian, it will also be marred for occupants. It is as though a building were to be built across the open sea end of Brunswick Square in Hove.

Returning to 'Albertopolis', the 'boilerhouse' courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum, open to Exhibition Road, visually provides an important spatial interlude between the massive blocks of the museum, whether or not pedestrians can enter it.

Libeskind's towering 'spiral'will obliterate it.

Further up Exhibition Road, Foster's Tanaka Business School is enclosing the open space in front of the admittedly unexciting 1960s buildings of Imperial College.

Near the Albert Memorial at the apex of the grand north-south axis lies the RCA, whose Darwin block establishes a symmetrical balance with Norman Shaw's Albert Hall Mansions on the far side of the Albert Hall.

Into this considered composition will be intruded a fourth asymmetrical element, between the RCA and the Albert Hall. Rising to the height of the 'cornice line' of the RCA's Darwin Block, it will effectively compete with it. The void that lies behind the Darwin Block, as it does behind Albert Hall Mansions, will be blocked, and the elongated ellipse of Grimshaw's block will compete with and cramp the ellipse of the Albert Hall. The important views of the east and south facades of the Darwin Block along Kensington Gore and from the Albert Hall steps - which allow it to read as a rectangular 'slab' or tower playing against the drum of the Albert Hall - will be blocked, as will the light and air that presently reach the RCA's courtyard. The Gulbenkian wing and entrance hall of the listed RCA will be demolished. The images issued by Grimshaw's office obscure with darkness or greenery the critical relationship between new and old. It is astonishing that the official watchdogs of architectural value - English Heritage and (less warmly) CABE - should endorse this proposal. The opinion of Westminster Council remains to be seen.

The RCA is one of the most refined postwar Modern Movement buildings in London. The establishment's hostility towards it, delaying its listing until recently, originated reportedly with Jocelyn Stevens as RCA rector and subsequently chairman of English Heritage. John Miller's and Wright & Wright's past alterations to it are questionable. Cadbury Brown, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and honorary doctor of the RCA, was a member of the MARS Group in the 1930s and organised the post-war CIAM conferences in England.

He worked with Ernö Goldfinger in the 1930s and taught with Welles Coates at Harvard after the war. This is his finest building.

The possibility exists - one he has endorsed - that extra storeys could be built above the present single-storey Gulbenkian wing up to the height of the adjacent Royal College of Organists. Such a block, though smaller than the proposed plan, would remain subordinate to and separate from the Darwin Block, whose integrity would be respected, enabling it to retain some sense of the critical voids. The RCA, and the grand axis of Albertopolis, deserve that such a possibility be explored.An understanding of the sense of space intrinsic to Modern urbanism needs to be rediscovered.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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