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RCA's Sackler Building, Battersea by Haworth Tompkins

Haworth Tompkins’ building for the Royal College of Art both regenerates Battersea and honours its manufacturing past, says Edwin Heathcote. Photography by Philip Vile and Helene Binet

There’s not much of industrial London left, so the loss of any further little scruffy works can be cause for concern. One such corner in Battersea has just gone, but the spirit of production survives, albeit more cultural than industrial.

The Royal College of Art Painting Department’s Sackler Building sits in a strong urban brew which was once typical of South London – a blend of industry, small Victorian parades of shops, caffs and pubs and a huge bus garage. Amidst this gritty mix the harbingers of regeneration poke conspicuously through. We might be only just over the bridge from Cheyne Walk, yet this is another city.

‘The retention of the fletton brick-built factory does give a sense of continuity of the urban grain’

Foster was here first. The architect’s offices are still the most elegant regenerated thing along the river. On the other hand, there’s also the great clunking UFO of the same architect’s hideous Albion Riverside, which  crunches into the urban fabric in a manner that does its best to ruin the neighbourhood. Vivienne Westwood is currently expanding her studios into a global HQ right next door to the RCA. And opposite, the RCA’s sculpture building, a super-robust conversion of an old factory by Wright & Wright Architects, sets the industrial aesthetic for a tough, no-nonsense campus.

Haworth Tompkins’ new building also exists within the shell of a former industrial building. It would be an exaggeration to call it found space – this is a brand new building in a steel frame inserted into a brick sheath – but nevertheless the retention of the fletton brick-built factory with its big, square punched openings does give a sense of continuity of the urban grain.

Haworth Tompkins has established its own brand of hardwearing arts architecture in buildings that acknowledge the visceral, semi-industrial nature of art and theatre production. The Young Vic, Aldeburgh Music’s Snape Maltings campus, the National Theatre Studio, the exquisite temporary buildings for Almeida Theatre at Gainsborough Studios and King’s Cross and even the slightly plusher Royal Court Theatre in London constitute an extraordinarily consistent genre. The new RCA building sits firmly and comfortably within the practice’s own oeuvre.

The retained brick wall envelops the ground floor and is topped by the saw-toothed crown of the crinkly-tin-clad first floor. The plan couldn’t be simpler, with a spine corridor off which sit the studios. The interest is revealed more in the section. On one side is a series of massive studios, more or less 8m cubes. They are spanned by a double set of north lights on a stripped steel structure and clad inside, as out, in profiled aluminium sheet. A series of neutral fluorescent strip lights set between the glazing allows the illumination to be replicated as the daylight fades.

The heated concrete floors are pre-cut with slots filled with strips of oak to take stud walls. The gable ends of the saw tooth roof are punctured by big circular vents which allow a stack effect and are protected by cowls so they can be left open overnight (paint, and the rest, smells). These are absolutely uplifting, outstripping the space of most commercial and public galleries, yet there is absolutely nothing precious about them. They are outstanding spaces for art.

‘It is the corridors, which form the social and spatial spine of the institution’

The double-height studios are overlooked at first-floor level by a gallery, its handrail capped in raw steel with a simple beeswax coating. The spaces interpenetrate in a kind of simplified and extruded industrial raumplan. On the opposite side of the corridor runs a series of smaller galleries lit by a single window (dictated by the original factory’s openings) which gives maximum wall space and ensures the view does not intrude on the interior. But it is the corridors, which form the social and spatial spine of the institution.

Generous in width (at a maximum of 2.5m) they are made to feel more spacious by the surprising absence of doors to the studios. Instead the openings are framed floor-to-ceiling in oak, their corners reinforced with raw-finished milled steel L sections. It is a curiously elegant solution, imparting an almost Japanese aesthetic on a harshly utilitarian structure. But it also privileges the route as a social and gallery space rather than purely circulation, the sheer verticality of the openings somehow emphasising the length of the corridor. The upper floor sees a repeat of the pattern and the view over the voids above the gallery gives an added feeling of space.

Both Graham Haworth and David Rayson (head of the School of Fine Art and client for the project) cite, as precedents, Royal Academy Schools and the original RCA studios in the Victoria & Albert Museum (where it was located before moving into the more familiar modernist South Kensington building), which were designed by Robert Smirke and Norman Shaw. Both fed off long, broad corridors, which provided social and spatial generosity at their core.

It seems to me that the typology is one deeply engrained in London’s art culture through the capital’s familiarity with a particular type of Victorian and Edwardian municipal architecture, namely the terrazzo-floored solidity of civic institutions, everything from board schools to town halls. It is a typology that also embraces some of the city’s best-loved institutions; taken together, they define a particularly London condition – Whitechapel Art Gallery and the South London Gallery come immediately to mind but so does Camden Arts Centre (once an art school, which still retains this feel) and a number of municipal local art schools, including the soon-to-be-emptied Central St Martins Holborn building by William Richard Lethaby.

The epoxy sealed concrete floors in their slightly watery surface recall the worn toughness of those terrazzo surfaces. Lethaby himself compared floors to an archetype of the sea, the water which finds its level; he cited the waves surrounding Roman mosaic floors and the mirror-polished marble of Venice as memories of its origins. If the ceiling is the sky (as its etymology suggests) then the floor, Lethaby suggests, is the primordial sea, the unformed world, and it is the building and the space which makes sense of the cosmos as it rises and forms itself. That meaning can surely only be reinforced as the layers of paint splatter begin to build into an impasto, the chaos of creation.

The other precedent Haworth and Rayson both cite is the original Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road, an industrial building so memorably converted in a deceptively simple way by Max Gordon in 1985. That confluence of the industrial and the municipal, both in their own way purely functional but maintaining a domineering urban presence, is a compelling mix of references almost managing to engender a kind of found space familiar through memory rather than material.

The spine corridor makes its presence felt on the street as it juts out in the form of a glazed box overshooting the facade to imply a canopy above the simple, glazed main entrance door. Perhaps there is an echo here of the glazed Dan Graham pavilion that sits atop a similarly robust arts building, the Hayward Gallery, which Graham Haworth collaborated on – but, although it makes perfect formal sense, there is something not quite right about it here. The posh fish-tank aesthetic jars with the engineering materials and the non-aesthetic of the box. It looks a little precious.

Inside however, it works, allowing the corridor to shoot off beyond the building and into the street. It becomes an elegant enclosed balcony. In normal circumstances I would also have questioned the idea of a lift terminating that main view down the corridor, the axis sets up such a powerful vista that its utilitarian termination looks clumsy, but there is no formality here. If the aesthetic is overridingly industrial, those concertina steel doors do just fine, like the finality of a full stop.

This is the first time in its 172-year history that the college has had its own, dedicated building for painting. Its alumni includes Edward Burra, Frank Auerbach (whose wonderfully paint-caked studio also proved an inspiration), Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, David Hockney, RB Kitaj, Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman and Chris Ofili. It was the sale of a painting donated by Francis Bacon (in lieu of rent on a studio in 1969) – Study from the Human Body, Man Turning on the Light– which partly funded its building.

It is an extraordinary history and one that was not served well by the old building, in which Rayson described the studios as being ‘stacked on top of each other like shelves.’ This is a huge move, both in terms of architecture and location, yet it has transplanted the institution to a place which has the potential to become far more bohemian than once-arty Kensington can ever hope to be again.

This corner of Battersea is at a pivotal moment. Central enough for gentrification it is still – just – rough enough, retaining enough grit and texture to intrigue and interest. Haworth Tompkins’ masterplan for the site embraces two more phases (including a large public gallery just off Battersea Bridge) which will involve the demolition of a scraggy bus depot and a few fragments of city fabric, which may be uninteresting on their own but do contribute to the variegated grain that gives this chunk of city its peculiar character.

In this building the architects have coped well by retaining brickwork and infilling gaps with concrete and steel, employing absolute clarity between the new and the retained, but the site as a whole needs to be handled with exemplary delicacy. For an example of what can go wrong, a stroll into the windy, soulless, dumb modernity of the arse-end of Foster’s complex does the job.

Yet if I were to trust an architect with retaining the feel and ragged London-ness of a scrawny site, it would be Haworth Tompkins. Haworth tells a story about a student moving into the last RCA building and deliberately tipping over a pot of paint to ‘take ownership’ of the still pristine surfaces. He seems positively excited about the ‘contamination’ of the surfaces and the splattering of walls as students begin to inhabit and personalise the structure. If you see any architect with paint on their shoes, that’ll be Haworth Tompkins kicking it off.

Public view and exhibition

Open to the public on the following dates from 11am - 6pm daily. Free admission.
20 - 29 November: We’re Moving, Exhibition of RCA Painting alumni and staff.
3 - 10 December: Painting Work in Progress Show, Exhibition by second year Painting students.

Royal College of Art Painting Department, Sackler Building, 14-22 Howie Street, London SW11 4AY

Project data

Start on site September 2008
Contract duration 52 weeks
Gross internal floor area 1,280m2
Form of contract JCT 2005 without quantities
Total cost £3.4 million
Cost per m2 £2661
Client The Royal College of Art
Architect Haworth Tompkins
Main contractor LIFE Building Solutions
Structural engineer Price and Myers
M&E consultant Max Fordham Consulting Engineers
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Planning consultant DP9
Cladding Stoneleigh Services
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

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