Charles Saumarez Smith simply adores the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens building, but abhors Battersea’s design desert

I am currently preoccupied by the issue of how best to develop Sir James Pennethorne’s great Italianate palace on Burlington Gardens after the Haunch of Venison art gallery moves out in March 2012. It’s a wonderful building with a monumental, top-lit central staircase and barrel-vaulted galleries, designed as examination halls, behind.

It was built for the University of London in the 1860s and used by prospective candidates for the colonial service in the early 20th century. In 1970 it became the Museum of Mankind until it was vacated in the mid-nineties and acquired by the Royal Academy in 2001. Now it must be one of the last unmodernised buildings in central London. I just hope that the academy will be able to afford to implement David Chipperfield’s highly intelligent and light-touch proposals for its renovation, which will give the academy space in which to develop its public programmes, and give London something equivalent architecturally to Chipperfield’s brilliant renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin.

As to blunders, I never cease to be amazed by the poverty of imagination in the big, new speculative housing developments south of the river stretching from Vauxhall Cross to Battersea. Whether seen from a boat on the river or from the road, they look as if they have been spawned by Terry Farrell’s MI6 building or landed from outer space: huge, out-of-scale and coarse in their detailing. It feels as if no thought has gone into the design of this part of the city.

One would hope that the development of the Battersea power station site might demonstrate a different and more humane set of urban values, but, from the designs published so far, I doubt it.


6 Burlington Gardens in Piccadilly

6 Burlington Gardens in Piccadilly, London, was designed by Victorian architect Sir James Pennethorne in the 1860s as the administrative headquarters of the University of London and has since changed hands a number of times. Last year, current owners the Royal Academy appointed David Chipperfield to design a revamp of the building to include new exhibition space, shops and a 250-seat auditorium. It is due to be completed by 2012.


St George Wharf

The riverside between Vauxhall and Battersea has undergone significant redevelopment in recent years following a period of neglect. High-end residential blocks such as St George Wharf – designed by Broadway Malyan – have sprung up, attracting residents such as John Cleese and Jeffrey Archer. In 2004, the area was identified as central London’s most significant regeneration zone in the London Plan.