Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.
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CHAPTER XXI - Royal College of Art
Like the Victoria and Albert Museum the Royal College of Art originated in the movement for popular education in industrial design of the 1830's. In 1837 a metropolitan School of Design was opened in Somerset House and by 1857, renamed the Normal Training School of Art, had removed under the auspices of the Science and Art Department to South Kensington, where it shared a site with the new museum. In 1863 it became the National Art Training School and moved into new buildings at the back of the museum, that in 1974 were still occupied by the painting and graphic art departments (see page 107). Under the influence of Richard Redgrave and Owen Jones 'the teaching of design proper was mainly based upon the botanical analysis of the structures of plants, and the conventionalising of the forms thus obtained': (fn. 1) of another teacher c. 1870, F. W. Moody, it was said he 'had reduced everything to a system'. (fn. 2) In 1853 Prince Albert had wanted the Schools of Design to be renamed 'Trade Schools' (fn. 3) but their original purpose was partly frustrated by a lack of enthusiasm for industrial designing on the part both of students and manufacturers, and became diverted towards general art-teacher training. The school at South Kensington (with recruits from Sheffield) did, however, provide designers and executants for decorative work, often employing relatively untried techniques, on the buildings with which the Department was associated. In 1897 the school received its present name.
The years before the 1914–18 war saw projects for a new building to remedy what the Liberal President of the Board of Education, J. A. Pease, called in 1912 the 'atrocious character' of the College accommodation. (fn. 4) The 1863 building was at that period augmented by huts east of Queen's Gate that were expected 'to be removed in a few years' time': (fn. 5) they and the 1863 building were in 1974 still in use. There was a scheme in 1906 for a College on approximately the Science Museum frontage to Exhibition Road. (fn. 6) Then in 1912–14 a proposal to build on the island site owned by the Government between Cromwell Gardens and Thurloe Place progressed to the preparation of plans by (Sir) Richard Allison of the Office of Works, before war intervened. The Office of Works resisted the wish of the College and the Board of Education for an architectural competition or alternatively for the use of a design prepared by Beresford Pite, a Professor of the College, in 1913. Considering 'four stone fronts' necessary, the Office of Works would consciously have provided a building that 'may not fulfil all the requirements of the [Board's] Committee in regard to floor space' in order that the price-limit of £65,000 should not involve the sacrifice of'external architectural features'. (fn. 7)
In 1920 the Government leased the island site to the French Government for utilization by the Institut Français (fn. 8) and although its reversion to use for the College project was still in debate in 1929 (fn. 9) it was acknowledged within the Board that its records 'do not suggest that there has been any public outcry about the delay in building a new College'. (fn. 10)
Equally abortive schemes in the 1930's included one for a College west of the Royal College of Music. (fn. 11) Actual work between the wars was, however, limited to a new entrance to the 1863 building, in which student-participation strained the College's relations with the Office of Works (see page 108 note).
In 1948 the College was reorganized and expanded and has subsequently brought its work into closer relation than before to the operations of industry and commerce. By 1951 a new home was in prospect on the present Kensington Gore site, which had been leased to the Government by the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners. (fn. 12) After consultation with the Royal Fine Arts Commission in 1956–8 (fn. 13) the designs for the present buildings were published in 1959. (fn. 14)
The workshop, studio and administrative block on Kensington Gore (which accommodates the industrial design departments), and the exhibitioncentre and assembly-hall block opposite the Albert Hall were built in 1960–2 (Plate 76c), and the library, refectory and common-rooms block in 1962–4. The College has proposed building another block extending along Kensington Gore to Queen's Gate, to house departments of painting, graphic design and photography.
The architects of the new buildings (as was the case with the old South Kensington Museum buildings) were on the institution's own staff—H. T. Cadbury-Brown (Tutor) in association with Sir Hugh Casson (Professor of Interior Design) and R. Y. Goodden (Professor of Silversmithing and Jewellery). The assistants in charge were J. F. Metcalfe and (for the hall block) Elizabeth Cadbury-Brown. The structural engineer was O. M. Marcel of Clarke, Nicholls and Marcel. (fn. 15) The general contractors were Leslie and Company.
The limit of expenditure was set by £424,000 from the Government plus £75,000 from the Gulbenkian Foundation for the hall block.
The architects have pointed to certain features of the design. (fn. 16) The arrangement with the main entrance on the east is intended in part to give meaning to the space separating the College from the Albert Hall. The workshop block is designed to balance in tone and bulk the mass of Albert Hall Mansions on the other side of the Albert Hall, and particular attention was paid to the silhouette of the skyline partly to respond to Norman Shaw's gables and partly to counter the relative darkness of a north-facing front. In order to foster 'spiritual contact' between the building and passers-by the ground floor of this block is so faced as to require repainting and thereby produce the continual 'rebirth of the building'. Inside, the treatment is intended to be flexible and unobtrusive. Studios open into the workshops, and corridors are largely eliminated. The block (of reinforced concrete construction) is split longitudinally to give different ceiling heights front and back: all floors are designed to bear machinery if required. The natural lighting of rooms is, so far as possible, from more than one direction. The all-over plan has, however, been criticized for the restricted lighting of and outlook from the common-rooms block. (fn. 17)