Richard Wilson RA, Patrick Brill aka Bob & Roberta Smith RA, Anne Desmet RA, Sir David Chipperfield RA, Charles Saumarez Smith, Rebecca Salter RA and Chris Orr unveil the plans for the Royal Academy's redevelopment on May 11, 2015 in London, England
Plans for the Royal Academy’s London site are unveiled by Chipperfield (fourth from left)

We have become so inured to the idea of the grand cultural project as a catalyst for urban regeneration that there is something almost jarring about the idea of millions being spent on two institutions that sit in some of the most expensive real estate on earth. The Royal Academy (RA), founded in 1768, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, formed about a century later, are the fabric of the arts establishment in London and New York respectively. They have both, in their own ways, struggled slightly to keep up with the wave of money and excitement that has flowed through the art world as contemporary art has exploded across global cities. And they are both attempting to address the subject through expansions by the same architect, David Chipperfield.

Chipperfield has designed museums everywhere from Henley to Hangzhou and Anchorage, in Alaska, to Mexico City but since the warm reception that welcomed the rebirth of Berlin’s war-ravaged Neues Museum in 2009, he has become, alongside Renzo Piano, perhaps the pre-eminent practitioner of upscale museum expansions.

A favourite of boards of trustees, Chipperfield delivers serious, elegant new spaces that manage to combine respect for the historic fabric, a kind of high-minded modernity and a sense of generous, civic permanence.

His most recent US project, the Saint Louis Art Museum, crystallised his approach to monumental historic buildings, a solid, almost classical modernism that seems to bridge the Beaux Arts and the contemporary via mid-century modernity.

So it isn’t much of a surprise that the RA turned to him to reconcile its complex buildings (Chipperfield is, after all, an academician himself) but it was perhaps more surprising that the Met, which had been working with one firm, Roche-Dinkeloo, for more than 40 years, turned to him, too.

I spoke to Chipperfield at a café table in the courtyard of the RA, the sun shining down on us giving a hint of the Italianate inspiration behind a building conceived as a Palladian palazzo. I ask how the two institutions relate to their respective cities and whether the plans would change that relationship.

“These are both institutions of the established city,” Chipperfield replies, “and they are both monuments that we are fond of. Which is both a strength and a weakness.”

“The Met probably has a stronger relationship to its city,” he continues, “but there is a sense that it doesn’t relate well enough to Central Park. [Met director] Thomas Campbell feels there’s a mandate for a new piece of architecture for the southwest corner.”

The RA, however, is something very different. “Frankly,” he says, “there isn’t much new architecture proposed here. Or rather, there’s enough architecture here already. It’s more a question of working within the seams of the existing buildings. Our project [even though it is estimated at £50m] is going to be pretty invisible.”

Chipperfield understates it slightly. The RA is incorporating the huge former Museum of Mankind building on Burlington Gardens, to create another entrance and a long public internal street through the building from Piccadilly to Mayfair.

“The fact that the route through the building will be open and free enables us to think about how to use the building between shows, to keep it accessible.” It is facilitated by the coincidence of the entrances to the Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens buildings lining up almost exactly on axis. The one piece of new structure will be an enclosed bridge with a large window to allow the route to cross this yard.

“We’re trying not to impose on the architecture,” Chipperfield says, “but rather to create a series of interventions, optimising what’s already there”. The designs should do something for the institution, exposing its own collections (currently almost invisible) and the complexity of one of London’s most fascinating buildings. It will also allow the improvement and opening up of one of the building’s most dynamic, architecturally impressive and rarely seen spaces — the Academy Schools.

The RA’s secretary and chief executive, Charles Saumarez Smith, suggests that the opening up of the schools represents a return to the roots of the institution and reinforces its identity as an “educational campus”. What was once seen as an elite, exclusive school is now, rather curiously, the only completely free graduate art school in the country.

Designs by David Chipperfield for the Royal Academy’s London site
Designs by David Chipperfield for the Royal Academy’s London site

In New York, Chipperfield’s plans for the Met are still on the drawing board but, he says, “there is a sense that the contemporary spaces are unsatisfactory”. That means buildings from the 1980s will need to be demolished. Bringing Chipperfield in illustrates a fascinating change in architectural tastes, from the modernist corporate competence of Roche-Dinkeloo to a kind of classical modernism, which addresses the language embodied in the Beaux Arts and the historic city.

Just as intriguing is the Met’s leasing of the Whitney Museum’s former Madison Avenue home to house its contemporary collection during the works. The magical Marcel Breuer-designed monster is a landmark in the city’s predominance in modern art and is an astute acquisition in the institution’s efforts to reposition itself from the past into the present.

“The Met wants a stronger relationship with the city,” says Chipperfield. “Thomas Campbell feels contemporary art is the way in. That re-engagement is possible because contemporary art is something that is happening now. It’s all around us.”

Campbell himself says: “The goal in our work with David . . . is to take a giant leap forward in the presentation of modern and contemporary art at the Met, and to be able to better tell the multiple narratives of the art of our time.”

The designs envisage hugely expanded contemporary spaces (the works are currently almost hidden away in a building with difficult wayfinding), a doubling in size of the roof terrace and, probably ultimately, an expansion and rebuilding of the Africa, Oceania and Americas galleries, similarly currently lurking undercover, as well as the creation of a new side entrance towards the park.

“The Met is the mother of US museums,” Chipperfield says, “and the RA makes a similar claim here.

“There’s continuity,” he pauses, “and that’s not to be sold cheap. When you’re made an academician [at the RA] you sign a board. Turn it over and the first signature is Joshua Reynolds.”

He says: “Both the projects are about trying to broker between the nature of the building, the desires of the institution and the needs of people who work there, which are complex and often contradictory. The decision to take down a building from the 1980s at the Met gives it a more political dimension — it’s a big decision but there is a clear mandate for architecture — while at the RA the architecture is almost invisible. What links both is the complexity. They are singular projects with implications for the city but there is no single sketch for either, no blanket idea to sum them up.”

As someone comes to take Chipperfield away to a TV interview, he leaves me one final sentence. “A museum is a magical thing,” he says, “something that talks about collective desire. One shouldn’t underestimate the reach of these things.”

Photographs: Hayes Davidson; Matthew Lloyd/Getty

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