The commission for the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts provided the practice with its first opportunity to work within the context of a historic building. Although perceived by the visitor as a single entity, the Royal Academy in fact consists of two buildings: the original Palladian house, converted by Lord Burlington in the eighteenth century, and a Victorian gallery block behind, linked by a grand central staircase. The project brief required the replacement of the undistinguished nineteenth-century Diploma Galleries at the top of Burlington House and the improvement of access routes throughout the building.

The key to unlocking the design solution was the rediscovery of the light well between Burlington House and the Victorian galleries, into which a new lift and staircase were inserted. In the process redundant historical accretions were peeled away, revealing the garden facade of Burlington House for the first time in over a century. Cleaned and repaired, it contrasts strikingly with the Victorian structure and the free-standing new insertions. The new work is demonstratively of its own time, using modern materials for modern ends, but it also enables a rediscovery of the potential of Burlington House and the Victorian galleries, much of which had become inaccessible over time.

In addition to this historical reclamation, the Sackler Galleries achieved new environmental standards, allowing the Royal Academy to meet the exacting criteria set by international exhibitions. These include a glazed reception area, which incorporates the parapet of the Victorian galleries, now recast as a display space for sculpture from the Academy's permanent collection. Notable along this simultaneously modern and antique route is Michelangelo's tondo of the Virgin and Child with the Infant St John. The Royal Academy was the first in a line of projects to articulate a clear philosophy about how contemporary interventions can be made in historical structures - a theme subsequently explored in the Reichstag in Berlin and the Great Court at the British Museum.

Sketches + Drawings

Development

Construction

Quotes

Richard Cork

“With typical audacity, Foster has created an entirely new reception area where once there was open sky. Walls of translucent glass preserve this open-air feeling by flooding the space with light. The prevailing mood of minimal whiteness adds up to an uncompromising assertion of Foster’s style, but within this spare, luminous modernity he has incorporated references to the past.”

The Times, 29 April 1991

Colin Amery

“And then there was light.. bright light, white light – a sense of luminosity and opacity, of being somehow close to the sky and close to the source of it all. This is the overwhelming feeling that pervades the Royal Academy’s new Sackler Galleries.”

The Financial Times, 17 June 1991

Norman Foster

“I think that many of the qualities of the spaces in the Royal Academy come from the fact that the institution has grown by additions over three centuries. So it seemed entirely appropriate that we stretch the limits of what we were able to do without compromise.”

Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 1985
  • Completion: 1991
  • Area: 312m²
  • Client: Royal Academy of Arts
  • Structural Engineer: YRM Anthony Hunt Associates Nick Green Albert Will
  • Quantity Surveyor: Davis Langdon and Everest
  • M+E Engineer: James R Briggs Associates
  • Lighting Engineer: George Sexton Associates

Awards

  • Minerva Design Award
  • Marble Architectural Award Special Mention
  • RIBA Best Building of the Year Award
  • RIBA Architecture Award
  • Structural Steel Award
  • British Construction Industry Award - High Commendation
  • 'Interiors' (USA) Award
  • RIBA Architecture Award 1992
  • 'Design Review' Minerva Award Commendation
  • National Dryline Wall Award
  • Institution of Civil Engineers Merit Award
  • The Royal Fine Art Commission and 'Sunday Times' Building of the Year Award 1992
  • Mansell Refurbishment Award

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