Exterior of the new battersea building which is clad in brick and features several balconies

Herzog & de Meuron Design a Space to Innovate in London

Kitted out with new research facilities and studios, the Royal College of Art hopes ideas and knowledge will collide in the latest addition to its South London campus.

What conditions enable the transformation of an idea into reality? As we strive to make our cities—and our buildings—places that can produce ideas that will further society, this question is top of mind for designers of all stripes. It’s also the question the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London is attempting to address with its new campus in the Battersea district of South London.

The institution’s approach is a familiar one. The derived logic being that to kick-start world-beating innovation, you need density. The theory goes that if you cram all the most intelligent, entrepreneurial people into one place, a melting pot of knowledge and inspiration will form. It’s a technique that’s manifesting at an architectural scale around the world with the proliferation of “innovation hubs.” Educational institutions are also trying their luck, evidenced in New York with DS+R’s Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center for Columbia University, where planners envision chance encounters and the exchange of knowledge and ideas happening within the building’s much celebrated circulation spaces.

the aluminum-clad research building is to the left of the brick-clad studio building.
The innovation campus in Battersea features two buildings: an eight-story faculty research center, clad in aluminum, and the four-story student studios building, which is clad in brick.

In London, Herzog & de Meuron took a similar approach with the RCA. Albeit with slightly less panache than their New York counterparts, the opportunity for such exchange manifests primarily within the project’s studio spaces, through generous circulation and spaces to showcase work.

At the building’s unveiling, Jacques Herzog, founding partner of Herzog & de Meuron, pointed to the new facility’s social role. “Institutions [like RCA] want to be great social spaces and focal points for public life. Our design for the new RCA and its programming at Battersea traces a path not so dissimilar to this new ideal. Students, teachers, and visitors will find themselves in a kind of village built around the topic of art, with an architectural atmosphere that encourages the entire community to engage in a constant process of teaching and learning, producing, presenting, and discussing art.”

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students working in flexible interior space at the Royal College of Art
The Weston Studios, flexible third floor studio spaces, feature an open plan with overhead outlets and receive plenty of light from massive overhead windows.

The main forum for all this is a place dubbed the hangar, a 3,800-square-foot space that serves as the project’s nucleus. Open to public streets on the north and south side through vast, floor-to-ceiling bifold doors, the hangar is the public’s portal into life at the RCA where it will be a venue for exhibitions, performances, and other programming. Within the double-height mezzanine space, students will also use it for crits and the assembly of large-scale works previously not possible on the RCA Battersea site.

The hangar also links the four-story student studios with an eight-story faculty research center, enabling that crucial forum for the cross-pollination of ideas as researchers investigating mobility design, new materials, augmented and virtual reality, and computing collide with designers, sculptors and artists in the studios.

The studios provide postgraduate sculpture, contemporary art, film, and design students with 21,500 square feet of workspace, fitted with servicing that allows spaces to be adapted as per their needs. Red plugs hang from ceilings, which give the space character, while an extra slab has been added to one level so students can hack into it without fear of causing any real damage.

exterior brick building, students gathering visible through doorway.
Students gather in The Hanger, a multipurpose and presentation space on the building’s ground floor.

At ground level, multiple paths have been carved through the studios, linking Howie Street to the north and Parkgate Road to the south as well as to an internal courtyard. This is part of an approach that strives to link university activities to public life. “It is so important to tell people around in the neighborhood who you are, what you do and to let them in,” Herzog said.

Despite neighboring the taller aluminum fin–clad research center, the studios are the scheme’s defining aspect—clad in brick and topped with a sawtooth roof that mirrors the Haworth Tompkins-designed Woo building opposite, also part of the campus. While letting plenty of light into the top floor, the roofline harks back to Victorian factories and studios—signifying to the street that this is a building where people are working with their hands, crafting, making and producing stuff.  

Balconies trace the building’s perimeter, protruding out to the street at varying points. These generous circulation spaces offer more opportunities for students to connect in an informal setting and will be welcome news to those partial to a cigarette. They also offer wide vistas across London, and it’s easy to imagine them serving as breakout spaces or areas to enjoy a break from artmaking or an evening drink.

details of brick wall and aluminum cladding
The faculty research building features the same brick treatment on its base, but above it is clad in aluminum fins.

The studios, while immaculately fresh and clean for the visiting press, look primed to be filled with the creative clutter that art students typically bring with them—and they will be all the better for it. The true measure of success will be if and how its occupants make it their home, taking the architects’ cues to adapt and utilize open floor plan and adjacent amenities to engage in that all-important exchange of ideas.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of the university’s intentions is the inclusion of an entrepreneurial incubator known as InnovateRCA. Housed in the research building, the space spans two levels providing workspace and business support for start-ups.

In order to win the project back in 2016, Herzog & de Meuron fought off competition from Lacaton Vassal and Studio Gang, among other big names. “Our experience with designing many museums in the last 20 years tells me that art institutions increasingly tend to blur the traditional boundaries between the collection, presentation, preservation, and even the production of art,” said Herzog, who described the project as a departure from previous in the UK, naming the Tate Modern and Trinity Laban dance center, the latter also in South London. “Here, there is a more a flavor of tradition and even maybe modesty. And at the same level, this project has a need, an ambition to be open for collaboration, to share space, and be open to the street.”

“Tradition” is reflected in materiality, brick slips evoking further historical industrial vernacular and being in line with a style known in the capital as ‘New London Vernacular’ originally pioneered by house builders looking for an easy ride through planning. In Battersea, the brick has done its trick, with perforations embedded within adding contemporary flavor to the project. These serve more as portals out rather than as views in, but public engagement with the RCA will likely only really come to fruition once an external courtyard and coffee shop are completed. As for the internal collaboration between disciplines the institution is eager to happen, this will likely be determined through clever course programming rather than chance encounters manufactured through spatial means — though it’s now wholly on the RCA to make the most of that for the students set to enroll in the years to come.  

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