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RCA shortlist betrays a lack of faith in homegrown architecture

Paul Finch

The RCA has an impressive list of architectural alumni, yet none will be involved in designing its new campus, says Paul Finch

What do the following architects have in common: David Adjaye, AOC, David Connor, dRMM (Alex de Rijke), Gollifer Langston Architects, Sheila O’Donnell, Urban Salon, Tonkin Liu and Theis + Khan? Two things. First, they are all alumni of the Royal College of Art, heralded as such on its website. Second, none will be involved in the college’s latest development, a new campus in Battersea.

Following the mass exodus of senior staff from the RCA in 2015, in circumstances that have never entirely satisfactorily been explained, it appears that the institution has lost faith in anything British, despite the incessant emphasis on its ‘Royal’ credentials via its very traditional logo. The nearest thing to a Brit on the shortlist for the new development is Chris Lee, whose multi-office operation has a base in London. Otherwise it comprises all global figures, who it must be said are talented.

But what does the shortlist choice say about the college and its ethos? Just about in living memory, when it created its magnificent buildings in Kensington, it could turn to RCA figures such as Jim Cadbury-Brown and Hugh Casson to provide sparkling and radical new architecture, even though they spent more time on London buses than jet-setting round the world like the people on the current list. Now it seems even its own architectural alumni aren’t up to snuff; or other London architects, despite recent quality buildings by Haworth Tompkins.

The arrogant London establishment finds the idea of local talent boring compared with the superstars it likes to hob-nob with

‘This is excellent news for the RCA, for London and for Britain’s creative industries,’ said RCA rector Paul Thompson, announcing the new development last autumn, when the chancellor confirmed a large dollop of public funding would go into the £100 million scheme.

It’s not very good for one element of Britain’s creative industries: architecture. In some ways it is symptomatic of the arrogant London establishment that it finds the idea of local talent boring compared with the superstars it likes to hob-nob with away from the messy business of teaching.

The shabby and shoddy treatment of Nigel Coates, forced out of his leadership of architecture and design in 2011 after 16 years of service, did not bode well for the future, and the events of 2015 have done nothing to improve things. The procurement of this new campus suggests that, at least in respect of architecture, the RCA does not believe in itself.

As a British institution this is not so unusual. The unpleasant recent comments by a senior British Council employee sneering at a royal baby were an echo of another BC employee squeaking ‘Down with the Queen’ at an RIBA event a few years back. They like being employed by the British Council, as long as it’s not too British.

This partly explains the backlash of the smug Remain brigade, now running round like headless chickens desperately looking for evidence of post-Brexit social and economic catastrophe, which is strangely absent, despite the best efforts of the Japanese-owned Financial Times to convince us that we are all doomed. Since they said exactly the same thing about abandoning the euro, I can’t say the Pink ‘Un propaganda is keeping me awake at night, especially since the Olympics have been so exciting.

Curiously, one group that loves the national brand decided our Olympic competitors should be Team GB, rather than Team UK. This is mysterious, since Northern Irish Olympians are part and parcel of our gang, which means it should be described as Team UK.

Oh well. The BBC, another Remain propaganda unit, which in some of its coverage suggests that a silver medal in Rio is a failure, has proffered an explanation for this. Happily, in general it is a cheerleader for domestic talent. Unlike the RCA.


Readers' comments (3)

  • A short list like this is indeed food for thought for UK architects but I’m not at all sure that Paul Finch does himself or the architects he seeks to protect any favours with this jingoistic nonsense. We live in a global market and the clients with the most interesting projects now have access to a wonderful array of both international and home-grown talent. Why shouldn’t they pick those that they think are the best fit for their projects? Paul would be amongst the first to congratulate UK firms when they turn up on shortlists abroad: this is simply the other side of the same coin.

    The RCA is to be commended for embarking on a competitive process that rigorously explores its options. The fact that the result of its deliberations is not ‘patriotic’ is surely missing the point. The important thing will be for the College to have the wherewithal to be an exemplary client, and protect their carefully selected architect from the hazards of UK procurement routes, so that they really do end up with a splendid building of which they – and the UK – can be proud.

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  • It has nothing to do with jingoism. I am making the point that an institution which trumpets claims about supporting British creative industry, and does so in order to obtain large lumps of money from British taxpayers, showed no sign of interest in British architects on this occasion. I find this curious. I had no problem with the recent Museum of London competition which had significant overseas practice representation, and indeed gave some help to one of them. I would have been alarmed if it had been a 100 per cent overseas list. Why is expressing an opinion so objectionable?

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  • Strangely RCA graduates - myself included - all got an advance notice heads up via e-mail from the college about this competition. It was very much presented as something that they wanted ex-students to bid for. It was too big for us though. There must have been a change of aspiration mid-way I guess.

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