Having recently won planning permission, David Chipperfield is about to start work on the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. The design links Burlington House to the adjacent former Museum of Mankind through a series of interventions that operate at various registers. In some rooms, the interventions amount to no more than – in the words of project director Nick Hill – ‘a lick of paint’, elsewhere a new lecture theatre is inserted into a room that previously held a mid-Victorian one. The most substantial intervention of all is a new link bridge between the two building complexes. While the new lecture theatre, which follows the same horseshoe arrangement as its predecessor within two thirds of the volume, poses intriguing questions about architectural work in this territory – such as mimicry, mimesis and ghosting – it is on the enigmatic link bridge that we will focus our attention.
Found images have both visible and opaque histories – the events that they capture, the people, spaces and things in the picture frame, the photographer, the book or publication within which they were published, the shape of the photograph; and then the inks, layout and typesetting used in the book, the people who handled these books and images, and, of course, their circulation. In Reynolds’ work, two, and sometimes more, images are drawn into a dialogue with one another. Accompanied by their associative narratives; placed together they then generate more still, and when they go on to be interpreted by viewers who bring their own knowledge, experience to their encounter, yet more again. She spins, (and we spin with her) a dense and rich web.
Buildings also have visible and opaque histories. There is the history that presents itself: material, forms, composition, age, patina, the visible marks of use, as well as those more abstract that come from association. Then there are the individual histories that users bring to any encounter with a building, how it is we see and the vocabulary that we use to interpret what it is that we see.
The architecture of the link appears pragmatic, driven by programme in plan and section. It connects the buildings through a level change and incorporates a bridge, a staircase and a passenger lift. Passing over the yard between the two buildings, it offers visitors to the institution a vicarious interaction with its occupants through its large window – they will now be able to see (some of) the activities undertaken in the academy without coming into direct contact with staff or students. In this way, strangely, the link brings into view a separation that was previously far less obvious to the casual observer. Constructed of fair-faced concrete, with visible board marks, it sets itself apart materially from the two masonry buildings that it connects – superficially looking nothing like either of them. The two buildings are left, almost, as found objects and spaces, transformed primarily by the new relationship in which they find themselves and their adjacency to a third building, this straddling concrete interloper.
According to Reynolds, the city resists the ‘modernist project of how our future could be.’ ‘London is constantly re-patinating and rebuilding itself’ showing how ‘everything can be reconfigured’ and that ‘the future is determined by the past in unpredictable ways.’ Even in wholly new districts, shiny and liberated of the weight of the past, there are ‘fossils in the street names.’
Concrete lends the link a monolithic appearance which is, in truth, something of an affectation. A quick glance at the plan form reveals the internal and external concrete linings which betray the hidden manoeuvres required to avoid thermal bridges. To emphasise this monolithic character the building’s details are recessive to the point of being invisible, with no frames, fixings or brackets visible. The window giving an outlook over the yard which the bridge crosses is simply a glazed aperture, with no visible mullions, transoms, fixed or opening lights. This gives the bridge link the character of a strangely scaleless sculpture that one can either pass through or underneath – it is not habitable, as such, as there is nowhere in it to actually spend any time.
Reynolds talks of how photographs can be read generically, but then also brought into a larger conversation that collapses the time between which the photograph was taken and that in which it is being seen, again, in dialogue with another image. The works ‘perform a compression’; an active reconstitution of how these images might otherwise have been seen. She has also suggested that hers might be a practice which ‘resuscitates images’ deliberately inhabiting the afterlives of images that might otherwise simply be archived in our collective visual memory. The artist ‘sorts through the ruins, picking things up.’
That there is nowhere to stay in the bridge, nor anything to do in it beyond pausing and taking in the newly created view, is entirely consistent with its idea: an opaque and unreadable object which itself exists out of time. The link makes no apparent gestures to either of the buildings that it joins; it stands apart and simply for itself. Its pragmatism, material qualities and monolithic appearance introduce a wholly new language into the complex which owes more to a generation of post-war brutalist cultural buildings throughout London than it does to anything in its immediate proximity. It could be said to be attempting a resuscitation or redemption of this notorious architectural language, examples of which are under threat of demolition or alteration across the country.
The link, in its own abrupt, taciturn way, perhaps brings the Academy into dialogue with this group of buildings. Might this new bridge, for all its opaqueness, signal a new more open outlook from the historically inward-looking Burlington Gardens complex, and a heightened awareness of the importance of these cultural institutions to London?
The link, also in its own way, ‘performs a compression’, bridging the century between the opening of Burlington House and the South Bank Centre and the fifty years from then until now. Taken as such, the link bridge constitutes a radical and thoroughly contemporary adjacency which may help us yet to see our existing cultural infrastructure anew.
[i] Quotes from Abigail Reynolds in the piece above are taken from a discussion between the artist and Sam Thorne of Tate St Ives on the last day of Reynolds’ recent exhibition at Rokeby Gallery in Clerkenwell. Observations of Chipperfield’s proposed works at the RA are drawn largely from a presentation given by project director Nick Hill at New London Architecture on the morning of the 26th of June 2015.