News from the Administration
Issue 2

Since students rarely get a glimpse into the RCA’s administration, especially concerning campus moves and construction, we decided to speak directly to Andrew Ashbury, Director of Building and Estates. The interview is largely focused on the school’s latest architectural asset in the making- a large industrial style building in Battersea, opting to create space for studio-based courses and research programmes. This building serves as an apt metaphor for the rapid growth the college is experiencing in terms of student numbers, programme diversity, and financial income, to name only a few. Read on to get the latest on this high profile project, as detailed by its director.

Could you summarize your role and how you got to this position at the RCA?

I am the Director of Buildings & Estates. My job in the college, there are two bits to it. The first bit is about delivering projects, so managing the design process, the build process, and getting projects done. And then the other part is managing and looking after the estate. So all the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff like cleaning, security and maintenance. I’m an engineer by background. I worked my way up by working on big projects. I worked on Terminal 5 for while, I worked on the olympics for a while, and I spent quite a long time with the BBC, so I worked on the broadcasting house for the BBC which is the new building at the top of Regent Street. So I was involved in building and fitting that out and moving the BBC. I’ve been here for four and a bit years, so I’ve certainly been involved in terms of the Battersea project. I was involved pretty much right from the start, when we were looking at buying the land and going to the government. I and many other people helped to write the business case that we sent in to the treasury to get the funding.

So I’ve read online that the school wants to extend into a “STEAM-focused” university involving “Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths/ Medicine.” Could you elaborate on how this relates to the new building and what this means?

I should say, I’m not an academic. I rely on the academics to help me steer what we’re delivering for them. But the building has three components to it: A whole suite of workshops - there’s a new studio space for new and expanding programmes, and there is an element to the building dedicated to research - and the home for new research centres, potentially for the Helen Hamlyn Centre and for RCA Innovation.

So Herzog & de Meuron exhibited concepts for the new building in June and then again in September.

We are due to submit the planning application at the end of this October. So we’ve been going to lots of consultation meetings, not just within the college but also with councilers, the GLA, Wandsworth, local residents, which is all normal practice as part of the planning application. You try and make sure that before you formally submit the planning application, people will almost already know what’s going to be in there, so there aren’t too many surprises. The exhibitions were part of that process, to get people to understand what we were doing, to understand the site and the land that we bought, and what we’re planning to do there. So the past few weeks have been busy trying to get people’s feedback and understand what people’s concerns are.

Did you get a lot of feedback?

Yes we did. On the whole, in fact, virtually everybody I’ve spoken to is hugely supportive of the college. People in Battersea really do like the college being there. The local council is a big supporter. I haven’t met anybody who said “I don’t want the college, I don’t want you here.” Everybody will have their own personal opinions on the design and that’s part of the process. You can’t please absolutely everybody, but on the whole, it has been very supportive. We’ve had independent design review panels as part of the process as well, where other architects and designers come and review the design. We’ve had two of those. Those have probably been the most supportive panels of that type that I’ve ever been in.

Did any members of public say, “Well maybe we should change the design in this way or that way?”

People have their views about the materials and the size and things like that. As the weeks have gone by and we’ve met with people and explained the process that we’ve gone through to look at the size of the building and the shape, the materials, we’ve won most them over now.

The powerpoint presentation from the second exhibition emphasises “building relationships and partnerships with the College’s neighbours and other new development plans.” Could you elaborate on the nature of these relationships?

There’s a lot going on in Battersea and there’s a lot happening on the site. We’ve had to show how the building sits in context with all of the other planned developments in the area. So particularly around Ransome’s Wharf, where the old Doodle Bar was quite a big scheme that’s got planning consent there. What we’ve been trying to do, is make sure that our scheme kind of gels together and fits with that. They’ve got their own shops and retail and cafes that they’re doing. We try to look at not just what’s there today, but what will be there in a few year’s time.

The powerpoint says “Housed in a new flagship building, the RCA will be an international centre of excellence in art and design, with global recognition, influence and impact, training a greater percentage of the world’s designers and prominent artists than any other university.” What will happen in this international “flagship building” to programmatically support these people coming in from different disparate cultures and countries?

We’re trying to make sure that it’s a very welcoming building. If you walk across the front of the Darwin Building, you don’t necessarily get a sense that you’re walking past the world’s number one university. You don’t get a sense of everything that’s going on in the building. But also we’re trying to make the building very flexible so that as things change over time, the building can quite easily respond to it. Programmes change; people’s requirements change. We’re trying to futureproof it.

One of the senior management team newsletters says “we will draw on the experiences of moving programmes to Dyson and Woo Buildings and the current move to White City, to ensure the moves are successful.” Could you comment on what you have learned from these previous moves and how these experiences will affect the transition into the new Battersea building?

The first move I did for the college was the move into Woo. What we learned is that it’s never too early to plan those kinds of moves. Woo, in particular, was tricky because of the amount of machinery and equipment that had to be moved into the building. That was difficult. The thing that we’re always trying to get better at is communication. For example, there’s a meeting going on right now about the very detailed planning for the sculpture move at Christmas. We know when we’re starting, we know when we’re ending. We bring specialists in to do the move. They’re working now to go through all the details. It will really be about just making sure that we start that planning process very, very early.

And the same with construction. The building next door to Sackler , it’s running a little bit late.

Yes. The guys who were building it went into liquidation. Suddenly we were left with a building that was half finished and firm literally walked off site. That’s what caused the delays there. We’ve had to jump in and rescue it with another firm that’s going to finish it off. The last bit of space there gets handed over on Monday. We’re interviewing the contractors now. We’re going through the process of finding the right contractor. They are all huge, international, hundreds of millions of pounds turnover, so I hope we don’t have that kind of similar issue again.

Last year there were a lot of complaints about spaces being redistributed unevenly, and right now too, especially right now with sculpture coming to Kensington. Do you think that it is Herzog & de Meuron’s task to facilitate the needs of different courses within the building or do you think that it’s a post-architectural internal task?

I think it’s a fine balance. I think the architect’s role is balancing between a building that is not necessarily bespoke to a single programme’s needs and providing a level of flexibility, without this flexibility rendering the building incredibly generic. This is the cycle that we’re going through at the moment with Battersea South being built. We’d really like to do a bigger refurbishment of the Darwin Building too at some point. And obviously White City. There is a plan we’re working on at the moment for how everything will end up in 2022-2023. So we do have a very good idea of the programmes we want to have in Battersea South, but we’re also mindful of making sure that the spaces in Battersea South are flexible. It’s a very dynamic place, the needs of programmes change on an annual basis and the student numbers between programmes change on an annual basis.

In the sculpture building in Battersea, there used to be a student-run cafe at the back. I think it closed in early 2016. We found that a lot of people are frustrated with the lack of social spaces in Battersea because it’s mostly studio based. So people come up with gypsy-camp type spaces to domesticate it. Do you think it’s important to create spaces like this?

I do. When you first walk into White City, the very first thing you come across is the cafe and the social space. That was a very deliberate thing, to put that at the heart of the building. You can walk out to the gardens in the back. So we’ve tried to do that in White City and it’s something that we’re looking at in Battersea and Kensington. We’re talking to the Student’s Union to collaborate on those types of spaces.

          Rachel Yalisove and Sofya Chibisguleva

Layout design by Dimitri Wiss and Dominik Langloh