In the past, students such as David Hockney had to work in cramped conditions at the Royal College of Art. Now they’re getting a hip new hub

Paul Thompson, the new rector of the Royal College of Art (RCA), is impressed. He’s just taken up post in time to open the new £4m Sackler building in Battersea, designed specifically for painting students. Parading the corridors, he proudly points out the shiny oak beeswax and clean steel finish. “I’m actually a bit nervous of letting the students in,” he admits.

Just over a year ago, this building was an abandoned factory. Today, it is a state-of-the-art space dedicated to painting – the first in the college’s 172-year history. Students who were previously located in South Kensington with a mixture of undergraduates from other disciplines will now have access to this building’s open-plan studios, white walls and high ceilings – all funded independently.

This building is stage one in an estimated £37m development programme. The college plans to overhaul the entire area centred on Howie St and Battersea Bridge Road, transforming the old industrial neighbourhood into a hip, artistic hub (as Thompson points out, “Vivienne Westwood’s headquarters and Norman Foster are just down the road”). The long-term aim is to move all of the college’s applied arts subjects into the neighbourhood, including glass, ceramics and metalwork. The RCA says it needs to raise another £12m to finish the project.

A further £21m has already been secured to build a set of local “incubators” – fledgling centres for new graduates who want to commercialise their products. According to Thompson, incubators have been shown to increase a student’s chance of success in the market from 40 to 80 per cent. One of the college’s most famous graduates, the inventor of the bagless hoover, James Dyson, is donating £5m to complete this project. When Dyson graduated, he had to advance his designs by working on his kitchen table and remortgaging his house.

“People should still show that dedication,” says Thompson. “But if I’m a graduate and I haven’t got a clue about intellectual copyright and can’t afford to rent a studio or know nothing about

manufacturing, it’s hard to advance. We want to produce the next generation of Dysons. That’s good news for UK plc.”

Opened in November, the Sacker building was funded by a donation from The Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation as well as proceeds from the sale of Study from the Human Body, Man Turning on the Light by Francis Bacon. The painting was originally given to the college by Bacon as rent for a studio in Cromwell Road in 1969.

The RCA is known for its long list of prestigious graduates including Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney and Tracey Emin; but the conditions they worked in weren’t always so glamorous. Past students report being squashed into the back rooms of the V&A. According to the former rector Sir Christopher Frayling, who put the plans and funding for the new developments into place, these spaces were far from satisfactory.

“In the space we’ve just superseded, one of the students deliberately kicked over a can of red paint, splattering the shiny wooden floor – which was some kind of a statement from them, I guess. The space never really worked for its intended purpose,” he says. “Students couldn’t even stand back and look at their completed work – especially with large paintings,

which were becoming increasingly fashionable. So something had to be done. We were determined to back the idea of painting in education to the hilt, while most other colleges seemed to be turning to general ‘fine art’ degrees, where you do a bit of everything and not much depth in anything.”

Ryan Mosley studied at the RCA from 2005-2007. In his first year, he was squeezed in with the sculptors in Battersea. Today he is due to exhibit his work at the Saatchi Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition of British art. Although he insists he doesn’t envy the new students, he was overwhelmed by a tour of the new building. “I don’t know how any institution can rival them – it’s incredible. It’s like the space age,” he says. “Our whole year group was grateful for what we had – all you need is paint, a surface and an imagination, after all – but this development might well encourage better students to apply.”

With its prestigious graduates, networks and history, the RCA should have no trouble raising the final £12m it needs to complete its plans independently. Thompson admits private funding is increasingly expected across the sector, but worries whether other colleges can follow the RCA’s lead. “We’re very proud we’ve managed to create all of this without recourse to public funding. But I worry about other schools and art institutions that are outside London where there may be less of a pool of wealthy individuals.”