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The Royal Academy building on London’s Piccadilly is a kind of self-contained architectural museum. It consists of a layering of construction across the years that embraces virtually the entire history of British classical and modern architecture – from Lord Burlington, who designed the original Palladian house for himself in the early 18th century to key architects in the evolution of British design: James Gibbs, Colen Campbell, William Kent, Charles Barry, Norman Shaw and, most recently, Norman Foster.
More than a palimpsest, it is a textbook where any new chapter is worth reading. And in the opening up of the previously private Keeper’s House as a restaurant and new public spaces, there is plenty to read.
The Keeper’s House stands in one corner of the courtyard and dates from the 1860s, when it was designed by Sydney Smirke (architect of the British Museum’s round Reading Room) as a grace-and-favour residence for the Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools. Today a blue Tracey Emin neon (“Keep me safe”) drags a hint of Soho seediness into the genteel courtyard.
The master plan for the Royal Academy by David Chipperfield (of which this is but a small part) includes the incorporation of the vast 6 Burlington Gardens (formerly the Museum of Mankind) behind it. According to Rolfe Kentish of architects Long & Kentish, “It is a complex territory.”
The Keeper’s House has been carefully stitched into the fabric of the Academy next door in a surgical operation that has left each of seven floors now opened up between the buildings. The new connective tissue is elegant and considered: the scars of former architectural incarnations are revealed, from hearths to sculptural niches and more mundane tears in the fabric.
“We’ve colonised the basements, the vaults, the culverts and the wine cellars,” says Kentish. These subterranean vaulted brick spaces feel very much a part of the London landscape: dark, faintly sinister and creaking with the weight of history.
The new restaurant is in the basement too: a space opened up by Long & Kentish (who also designed The Ivy), but its interior was designed by Chipperfield. Adorned with architectural details from the Academy, it is quite an austere place, with plain green walls and exposed 17th-century ceiling beams. The bar adjacent to the restaurant is more self-consciously urban, its deep red surfaces gleaming. It opens out on to a small landscaped garden that, according to Kentish, “had become a dumping ground for failed sculptures, though it was originally a kitchen garden for the house.”
The scheme also includes a comprehensive restoration of Norman Shaw’s wonderful Edwardian architecture gallery and studio (part of the schools, which will not be open to the public). Glass lifts, carefully inserted circulation spaces and some of London’s most exquisite vaulted lavatories create, out of leftover collisions of structure, memorable new moments exposing centuries of subterranean addition and repair.
The creation of an entrance independent from the Academy allows the restaurant to be kept open after museum hours. It can also accommodate corporate and private events while the museum (which has more than a million visitors a year) remains open.
Curiously, Piccadilly, with its hotels and heavy traffic and its reputation as the very centre of London, has not been a good place to eat. With the exception of the Wolseley and a few scattered cafés, it has lacked a space for serious dining. This new layer in the Academy’s rich architectural history might just establish itself as the kind of characterful venue that can inscribe itself into the city’s consciousness.