ARCHITECTURE

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* I had no difficulty in listening to this speech. R. A. Butler, as Master of Trinity, regularly boasted at a yearly dinner that Trinity had that year come top of the academic league tables and head of the river. We loved it.

One year he varied it. Once again the College had topped the academic league tables and he was pleased to say that his College, Pembroke, had come head of the river.

His portrait can be found, with equal prominence, in the halls of both Colleges.

One of a pair of door knockers given to the Society in 1815

The Society was founded in 1754 and Thomas Grinion, a clockmaker, was an early member who gave it this gift which is to be found in the Great Room




THE RSA HOUSES


Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT


For an institution to be intellectually competitive I have always found the buildings it inhabits to be a critical component.


Ideally the institution should have a large membership drawn from citizens of diverse disciplines or studies and the physical organisation of its spaces should be such that members continually cross one another's paths, have the opportunity to fall into conversation with one another easily, exchange ideas and, if inspired to do so, seize upon some element of the ideas discussed to go off and do something about them.


8 John Adam Street, the Society house

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures has always been one such intellectually competitive institution. In its early years, in its Robert Adam-designed society house, Benjamin Franklin spent a lot of his time in London exploring ideas and exchanging views with its members and then, as history shows, went off and did something about them.

So I remember a speech given by an American friend of mine in the hall of Clare College, Cambridge where she pointed out that the American colonies had been lost by the Fellows and members of that College*. As I reminded her the next day, that might have been true but we at the RSA had probably educated him on how to take them.

The Society's house and an adjacent one for its Secretary were completed by the Adam brothers in 1774, designed by Robert Adam and comprise 6-8 John Adam Street. 2-4 John Adam Street and 18 Adam Street, which continue the terrace eastward and were part of the Adam brothers' development of the Adelphi, became part of the houses of the RSA in the 20th century.


The Secretary's house, no.6, is adjacent to the Society house and no.4 is to its right

I visited the Society as a student, more to have sight of a document about Robert Adam's work than to inspect the Society's houses in any detail, but did take the opportunity to view the Robert Adam designed ceilings in the Adelphi Room and the Secretary's Room (it may be called something else now), which I liked, and the more generic Adelphi development one in what was then the RSA's Library in 2 John Adam Street, which was a little underwhelming, in what had probably been the main drawing room of the house.

When I became a Fellow in 1989 the arrangement was the same and the 2 John Adam Street and 18 Adam Street first floor rooms were accessible to Fellows for use.


The RSA is currently much concerned about contributing to society so I return briefly to what I consider contributes to an intellectually competitive institution.

Privilege within one cannot be eliminated but a learned society (be it a school, college, university or the RSA's kind of learned society) should strive to be as little hierarchical as possible within its operation. Hierarchy is a bar to the best ideas travelling rapidly to the top and the price that may have to be paid for excess hierarchy is irrelevance. Information has its own ways of travelling rapidly now and people cannot stand in the path.

Once the entry bar has been crossed, gatekeeping has to be kept to a minimum. Equality can never be achieved by gatekeeping. It is its enemy. In the outside world gatekeeping leads to the feather-bedding of staff and eventually to the development of corrupt practices. Within the institution, equality can be substantially achieved. Services within should only very rarely be charged for and, when so, only at close to cost. Institutions should be free of the neoliberal idea that everything has a price defined in money. The price that may have to be paid by a learned institution for gatekeeping is avoidance. There is much more choice in the world now.

The RSA is fairly good on hierarchy and very good on no gatekeeping and with its intention to build an internal coffeehouse called Rawthmell's, named after the coffeehouse where the Society first met, and new spaces shared by Fellows, it is travelling in the right direction to be once again the kind of learned society experienced by Benjamin Franklin.

The buildings of an intellectually competitive institution should be capacious enough for the membership and not mean spirited - the Society house passes these tests well - and give access to views and the elements.

The land on which the RSA houses are built slopes steeply to the Thames and there were arched structures below ground level that Adam largely bypassed in building the main house, including its basement and lower basement storeys.


The plain rear elevation of the toplit Great Room was later given pilasters and pediment by Aston Webb and sits above the Benjamin Franklin Room which has its lights on. Durham Street used to pass below through the arch.

Since 1989 substantial progress has been made by the Society in development projects, including the current one, in making use of the storeys below the ground floor level of its houses to provide extended and better facilities, all subterranean.


The granite setts and pavement of Durham Street provide a sloping floor to the auditorium

I went to a lecture by Dr. D.G.C. Allan, Curator-Librarian, later archivist, of the Society about the Society's houses in the Durham Street auditorium below the main house, shortly after it was completed in 1990, and despite having his book, The Houses of the Royal Society of Arts A History and A Guide, which he had updated in 1974, was not much the wiser afterwards about how the structure and planning of the terrace worked below ground level, it being so complicated.


Durham Street auditorium

Since 1774, the Great Room and the Benjamin Franklin Room (previously called the Model Room, then Repository), both in the main house, have been subject to numerous internal rearrangements, each reflecting the culture of their time, but, fortunately, no serious structural reordering. I have had no strong views on any arrangement, three of which I have seen in place since 1989.

Being an enthusiast for all Robert Adam's work, though, I do have views on the lesser rooms in the houses where the work of the Adam brothers is still distinguishable.

As more work to the ground floor and lower storeys has taken place so access to rooms on the first floor has been progressively withdrawn. In most grander 18th century houses these form the piano nobile and are the most important rooms.

At the time of the 250th anniversary celebrations of the Society in 2004 I ventured round to spot as many 18th century features as I could but have not done so since. As part of the celebrations I also went to the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, graciously given to mark the anniversary year. (H.M. The Queen, H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh and now H.R.H. The Princess Royal have all successively been President of the Society).


My view, which might be modified on inspection, is that the whole of the first floor should be opened up to the free flow of the Fellows along all four houses, retaining rooms as rooms and not removing as many walls as has happened on the ground floor. Their 18th century character should be restored. At present, the 18th century heritage of the institution cannot be fully understood on any one floor.


The Georgians were good at understanding proportions and natural light and being in Georgian rooms can be naturally relaxing. Opening them up to sit and talk, and look out at the streets and the Adelphi, is what Fellows need to recreate the comradeship of Benjamin Franklin's time.

Apsidal anterooms are a characteristic device used by Robert Adam and opening up the Ante-Room to cross-circulation and use by Fellows would help them perceive his design.

The Adelphi Room and the Secretary's Room also have Adam ceilings that would make their stay in them be well worthwhile.

This, though, is a project for another decade.


The Society is in good health and I am looking forward to seeing the new stepped auditorium/discussion space of the 2018 project built.