Ever since the Royal Academy took on the old Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens, it has been a frustration that the two buildings were not joined and, if visiting exhibitions in both, you had to walk round the streets from one to the other – though Burlington Arcade is always a pleasure to walk through (especially when it is raining). David Chipperfield’s 250th Anniversary masterplan for the Academy has at last joined the two buildings together and done so in a way that retains the characters of the different parts of the Academy including “downstairs” to the Royal Academy Schools, while adding new robust modern construction where needed for circulation, lifts and the like. In this, he is following from the approach evident at his Neues Museum in Berlin.
A new north to south circulation route carved down and back up through the two buildings is the essence of the project – no need for a grand atrium here – revealing glimpses into the spaces between the building, now landscaped, and of architectural details never seen before. Chipperfield has then reordered the galleries in the old Burlington Gardens building and added a magical lecture theatre, reminiscent of those old lecture theatres where the seats embrace the speaker, rather than the formal and efficient rectangular theatres so beloved by universities, fitting contemporary lighting, timber and furniture within the historic space.
The Academy how has additional space in which to enter its 251st year with gusto, and the flexibility to run different events and exhibitions across the two buildings, using the spaces in different ways. At the preview days, visitors were provided with maps to find their way around; I suspect wayfinding will be a challenge in the early days until visitors become used to the new relationships.