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Re-imagining the Pedestrian Tunnel to Albertopolis with Secrets, Connections and Universal Truths

Students from the Royal College of Art’s Architecture, Interior Design and Textiles programmes have collaborated with their counterparts at the Royal College of Music and Imperial College London to produce schemes designed to reinvigorate the 550-metre pedestrian tunnel that links South Kensington underground station to the attractions of Albertopolis.

The Grade II-listed pedestrian tunnel, constructed in 1885 as ‘an underground arcade which shall fill all the museums silently and unobtrusively at all seasons… worthy of the civilisation of South Kensington’ forms an important but uninspiring arrival space for the millions of visitors who flock to the Victoria and Albert, Science and Natural History museums, as well as specialist institutions like the Royal Geographic Society, the Ismaili Centre and the Goethe-Institut.

Founded from the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 to fulfill Prince Albert’s vision of ‘extending the influence of science and art upon productive industry’, today the area known as ‘Albertopolis’ is home to an amazing community of researchers and scientists, and is where engineers, designers, architects, scientists, musicians and artists of the future come to learn and be inspired.

Following on from the success of the Exhibition Road public realm project, led by Dixon Jones Architects and completed in 2012, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851and the Exhibition Road Cultural Group have kickstarted the redevelopment of the tunnel by organising a competition to bring positive and exciting improvements to the environment and character of the tunnel that improve both its function and its creative potential. The competition brief was prepared by Alex de Rijke, Dean of the RCA’s School of Architecture with Senior Tutor Adrian Friend with Emily Candler from Exhibition Road Cultural Strategy Group, to align with their graduate design module.

Chris Cotton, Chair of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group said, ‘Exhibition Road is all about opening up minds – and this competition has done precisely that. We now have a range of exciting and thought-provoking ideas to enliven this important space, connecting one of London’s busiest stations with South Kensington’s amazing venues and institutions.’

By harnessing the energy of today’s student cohort at South Kensington, the competition continues a tradition of giving local students the opportunity to contribute to the area’s public buildings and spaces. Designs from three teams were selected to share a £6,000 prize, as the judges felt that each offered elements that could be combined to bring positive and exciting improvements to the environment and character of the tunnel.

The Secret Guide to Albertopolis proposes new tile pattern decorations for the tunnel floor that draw inspiration from the museums and cultural institutions above ground and the rich design tradition of the Underground. Based on thorough research of visitor flow, the scheme includes a range of playful temporary structures, including a pop-out lecture theatre and event spaces, that are concealed within the tunnel’s structure when not in use, offering a backdrop for a varied programme of cultural events.

Connections seeks to reconnect the tunnel to South Kensington via a series of dramatic and major physical interventions, making it more ‘porous’ and establishing a clearer physical link with the station and the street above. The scheme creates new public spaces that emphasise and celebrate the wealth of amenities and institutions the tunnel services while providing an attractive arrival space with improved wayfinding and access.

The Complete History of the Universe was inspired South Kensington’s historical and contemporary role in developing and sharing knowledge, and sought to capture the tension between building a complete understanding of everything with the impossibility of actually doing so in the modern age. The scheme proposes a timeline in the form of an undulating handrail that represents human knowledge, thinning or thickening according to our understanding of the universe.

David Hamilton, Associate at Malcolm Reading Consultants, who facilitated the design competition said, ‘I was very impressed by the students’ approach to the competition. The teams engaged with the process and brief in a serious, thoughtful and professional way, and produced clever and engaging designs that can now be taken forward to the next stage.’

Transport for London (TfL) is developing ambitious plans to transform the operation and environment of South Kensington station. The intention is that the winning designs will now be taken forward to the next stage of design, for further consideration as part of TfL’s station improvement programme.

South Kensington Tunnel Ideas Competition, an exhibition of all the design proposals, is on display at the RCA Henry Moore Gallery, Kensington, until 19 December.

16 December 2014 to 19 December 2014
10am–7pm on Tuesday, 9.30am–5.30pm Wednesday–Friday