I have just been grilled by the New York Times about the 2008 competition for the design of Burlington Gardens. I realise that even though it is quite recent and even though I was a member of the RA’s Client Committee at the time, one quite quickly forgets the details of what happened and how the decision was made. This is what I remember, although others will remember more, or differently.
Sandy Wilson had spent the last five years of his life working on a very ambitious Masterplan for the development of the whole of the Royal Academy and its site. His scheme had been costed at £85 million. Following Sandy Wilson’s death, it quickly became clear that it would be hard to fundraise for a project in the absence of its progenitor and that his scheme had been handicapped by a presumption that no public route could go through the Royal Academy Schools. So, a limited competition was held for the development of Burlington Gardens only, which was won by David Chipperfield, who had been elected an RA in December 2007. My recollection is that he won for two reasons:- his sensitivity to the character of the original Pennethorne building and the fact that he had gone back to its original plans (he used the phrase ‘a light touch’); and his determination to reinstate a big daylit public lecture theatre in the space which had originally been occupied by the University of London’s lecture theatre.
At the time, the Neues Museum had not yet re-opened (it re-opened in October 2009). And the idea of linking the two buildings was not part of the original competition entry, but came later.