New Beginnings - RACC
Text: Roz Barr
Richmond Adult Community College was not what I expected to find in conservative suburban London. Located within the Richmond Conservation Area, its site forms a prominent corner with two very different edges- the leafy Parkshot and the grim, noisy, car-filled, dual carriageway of Twickenham Rd. Its Edwardian main building (1909) originally housed Richmond School for Girls, and was extended in the 1930‘s and again in the 1950’s to accommodate a gym and additional teaching spaces, with the Queen Charlotte Hall built in 1981 as a community theatre.
For some years the college operated across this site and another in Twickenham, but a recent project by Duggan Morris Architects has consolidated all of its activities in the same place, with particular generous provision for arts education. Existing buildings have been adapted or removed and new ones added, with the inspiring principle of the college, Gabrielle Flint, plans for such future expansion were still in development, but the strategy was clear, to embrace the community and create a hub of learning accessible to all.
Peering through the gates on Parkshot, you find the Edwardian building’s large timber doors wide open, revealing a compelling world behind. The openness of the main entrance to the site goes against Ofsted’s safeguarding requirements, but the college’s brief called for no metal detectors, locked doors or barriers; its intention, as the principal proudly explains, was to demonstrate and encourage citizenship, tolerance and awareness of others.
You certainly experience this once you enter the new Hub - a single-storey glazed pavilion linking the Edwardian building to the renovated theatre. The users of this building are diverse in their needs, and include a dementia support group and learners with disabilities and learning difficulties, among local people of all ages. The Hub opens its doors at 7.30am and is where community police officers have their roll call and coffee alongside the residents of the homeless shelter across the road. Inclusivity happens here.
Duggan Morris embraced these complex requirements. The relationship of the Edwardian and 1950s building needed ordering, but this has been done in a relaxed manner. Clarity has been added by a new central courtyard. The single-storey Hub link is also a foyer to the theatre, accommodates the cafe and shop and is the ‘common room’ for the community. Its architecture is honest and robust but well ordered. The powder-coated aluminium framed glazing is standard stuff but gives a lightness that is inviting and not precious. A polished concrete floor, birch ply panelling and exposed timber ceiling allow services and structure to be on show.
In reordering the campus, Duggan Morris aimed to mend the best existing buildings alongside new additions. A new theatre was created within the diaphragm walls of the Queen Charlotte Hall. Externally it has been refaced in brick, and a lighter, more neutral interior strikes a balance between the old and new worlds of the college. The red-brick gymnasium building (or ‘Old Jim’ as it was fondly nicknamed) was retained and its restoration is a bit of clever dentistry. The existing brick, once cleaned, was rather good - almost like finding a great painting and then repairing what can be saved. Windows were infilled, and new floors installed to suit the proportions of art studios.
The former gym is flanked by a new-build block of art studios that echos the cubic form of its renovated neighbours. Externally these blocks have a scale less quality, but the logic underpinning their awkward juxtaposition becomes apparent once you are within the perimeter walls. New internal steel frames allowed floors to be repositioned so that buildings which previously functioned individually but not collectively now form a coherent whole.
New picture windows inserted into the brick walls of the former gym respond to the reordering of the interior. The effect offers a calm response to heritage while mediating between new and Edwardian elevations. The new and reskinned blocks are faced in brick, and the architects have fought to keep their cornices as drawn and not devalued in a painful procurement process. The external brick shroud to the theatre addresses the noise of the road while evoking the craft and making that take place in the studios next door, while the perforated pleated metal veil to the glazed top floor of each building gives an unexpected softness to the solid forms.
What has been maintained throughout this project is the strength of an idea. The solid masonry forms of the blocks, with their veiled metal tops, give an ambiguous edge to the tough Twickenham Road. The relationship of the windows to wall responds to the interiors and frames views from the new workshops and studios. While internal finishes are basic and in places crudely executed, they are exactly what this industrious art college requires. Students and staff pinning work to the walls and personalising signage for their studios seem to be inspired by the architecture. There was no money for new furniture or built-in joinery, so the college reused pieces from its former site, but if anything this enhances the palette of materials established by the new architecture.
The ordering of the spatial volumes is what is most engaging about the project. The theatre building places the double-height auditorium at ground level with a large picture window to the central courtyard, smaller music rehearsal rooms to the side and a tall dance studio above. The former gymnasium places the most robust crafts - pottery kilns and casting - at ground level, with smaller-scale making such as graphics and jewellery on first floor, and the drawing and painting studios on the top floor.
The new-build studio block has a double height painting room at first-floor level. On entering you are aware of a continuous band of light from high-level windows, making this the most memorable of the spaces. An exposed steel frame and blockwork walls characterise a calm space that inspires creativity. Duggan Morris makes memorable and good architecture, and although the travails of this project’s construction are evident, what remains strong is the beauty and boldness of its design. This robust ensemble stands credibly in Richmond and makes a positive contribution to the conservation area. Here art, craft and community are drawn into quietly dramatic dialogue.