Peeling back the layers

Originally published in Autumn 2013, in this article I discussed the RA’s ambitious Keeper’s House renovation project with its architect Rolfe Kentish.

Visitors passing through the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard this autumn might notice something they haven’t seen before. A door to the right of the main façade of Burlington House will draw the eye towards the Keeper’s House, the newly-renovated sideways extension of the old house originally created by Sidney Smirke RA in the 1870s. Tracey Emin RA’s bright neon work, Keep Me Safe, 2007, acts as something of an emblem for this ambitious project. The words of Emin’s piece allude both to the name and the welcoming and friendly ethos of this refurbished part of the Academy. Strictly speaking the Keeper’s House is the studio and suite of rooms used by the Academy’s Keeper, the officer responsible for the RA Schools – currently Eileen Cooper RA. Though the scope of what is now called the Keeper’s House has widened, the idea of hospitality is at the core of the project: to remake a disconnected series of rooms and spaces into comfortable new facilities – in essence, ‘a home away from home’ – for Friends, Royal Academicians and members of the public visiting the RA.


I catch up with architect Rolfe Kentish, whose practice Long & Kentish has led the project, amidst the excitement of ‘seeing the furniture come in, the catering equipment, and the colour on the walls’. Kentish is keen to point out from the start that the project has ‘affected and been affected by every almost department of the RA’. In some ways, he suggests, the Keeper’s House can be seen as a microcosm of the whole institution. Space previously used for offices has been taken over in both the rabbit warren-like basement and the old Architecture Room, while the more familiar Casson and Belle Shenkman rooms have also been brought into the project’s orbit. Uniting these disparate spaces is a metaphorical and functional ‘spine’. ‘Comprising a new lift and staircase, the spine will provide access for seven different floor levels, including for the first time the RA’s Library and Archive’. What this has allowed, Kentish notes, is ‘the connection of a variety of different rooms with different characters serving various groups’. The building however remains ‘a very domestic project; each room is a room and they have if anything become more enclosed’.

The grandest room is undoubtedly the Architecture Room, which sits to south-east of the Main Galleries. Designed by Norman Shaw around the time he created what are now the Weston Rooms and Restaurant at the RA to the west of old Burlington House, the Architecture Room will provide much needed space for Royal Academicians and their guests. ‘We’ve removed successive layers of paint, wallpaper and canvas and gone back to the original Norman Shaw red paint finish which was identified by sectional paint analysis overseen by Julian Harrap Architects’, reports Kentish. ‘The walls are almost like architects’ drawing boards: tongue-and-groove boards tightly butted together and then painted. We’ll be leaving them entirely as they are, even retaining the nail holes used to hang architectural drawings in the room’s former life’. The old carpets have been taken up to reveal the original oak floor and Portland stone margin, while the ceiling’s plasterwork has been overhauled. Thee Architecture Room’s decoration and proportions are similar to rooms Norman Shaw created in a number of houses, notably at Cragside, Northumberland. It’s fitting therefore that in its new guise the Architecture Room will reflect this domestic quality as both informal gallery and space for the on-going debate and discussion of art and architecture.

History made visible

The philosophy guiding the whole project has really been ‘about peeling away successive layers, many quite recently applied, to get back to an original state’, whatever that may be. Brickwork has been stabilised, floors sealed and repaired while in the dining room the hotchpotch of beams running across the ceiling has been left exposed. ‘Early plans for the basement call the area a beer store or a wine cellar’, Kentish recalls, and true enough, eighteenth-century wine bins have been found in the vaulted space that is now the ladies’ bathroom. Elsewhere an old fireplace or possibly latrine shoot, most likely part of the original 1660s house, was discovered adjoining the culvert that was created with the insertion of the courtyard fountains in 2000. These underground spaces are left raw, their complex histories made visible, yet given coherence by Kentish’s subtle palette of oak, Purbeck stone and bronze. Upstairs the Casson and Belle Shenkman Rooms have received a much-needed refresh. The carpet has gone, with new white oak floors taking its place. Furniture chosen by David Chipperfield Architects, who are responsible for the interior design of the whole project, lends the spaces a contemporary yet classic feel. Visible from the Belle Shenkman Room (and accessible from the bar the floor below) is the garden, which Kentish describes as ‘another room’. The garden itself will be paved in brick and elegantly planted by landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith, while the roof of the adjoining electricity substation will be turned into a sculpture ‘shelf’ which will change annually.

Making links

The considerable amount of wall space throughout the Keeper’s House will be used to display works from the Academy’s Collection, notably architectural casts, which will be hung around the perimeter of the dining room and other spaces. Taken from ancient architectural fragments and acquired for the instruction of RA Schools students, the casts’ presence in the Keeper’s House will connect it to yet another part of the institution – and this sense of making links and bringing people together is what the Keeper’s House is really all about. Friends, Royal Academicians and other visitors will have new spaces – and a separate front to door with which to reach them – to come together to look at and debate art and architecture over a drink, quick bite or longer meal. As Kentish remarks, ‘there are lots of permutations to how the Keeper’s House will be used and once it is open, we’ll see what’s truly possible’.