In 2010, Deborah Saunt was awarded the Research Fellowship in the Built Environment by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. The generous grant supported an intensive research programme to develop a comprehensive understanding of public realm issues facing the Albertopolis, specifically the area around the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial.
In summing up the spirit of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Charlotte Bronte stated that “Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things.”
All human industry was bought together in the Great Exhibition and an incredible wealth of knowledge was shared and enjoyed by millions under Prince Albert’s vision.
Today people still come to the Albertopolis searching for this same spirit of enquiry among the site’s assemblage of some of the world’s most inspiring monuments and institutions, like the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial, the V&A and the Natural History Museum, to name but a few.
However, beyond the teeming museums to the south, the Albertopolis reveals little of its distinguished legacy. The Royal College of Art, the Royal Geographical Society, Imperial College, the English National Ballet, and the Royal College of Music all turn their backs on the Royal Albert Hal, with primary entrances on adjacent streets. This disconnect between these inspiring and creative institutions leaving the public realm around the Royal Albert Hall muted and devoid of activities.
The aim of Deborah's Fellowship research was to make manifest the wealth of talents, innovation and knowledge held within the legacy estate, and and let it speak to the wider world through a re-imagined landscape of connected spaces, institutions and meaningful uses.
The study led to the development of a range of strategic conceptual ideas and a long term visions, which aimed to reconfigure the Albertopolis as a new typology of public space: a ‘cultural landscape’, where buildings (particularly museums, monuments, theatres and academic institutions), together with open spaces (such as the exhibition Road, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens) can create a cradle for creative entrepreneurship and collaborative learning.
Unlike the ‘campus’ – discrete and often inaccessible – a ‘cultural landscape’ is a porous and open environment that stitches between the unique assemblage of existing buildings and activities, to maximises their potential for collaboration, whilst making historic narratives and contemporary programmes visible and accessible to the diverse audiences which are drawn to the site. This is how other centres around the world operate, such as Cambridge’s Courts, Harvard’s Yards, the Louvre’s Pyramid or Beijing University’s Pagoda and Lake for instance.
Building upon the research on the site carried out with Deborah’s Master students from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, her methodology deployed the mapping of social territories and the analysis of urban settings to highlight the critical importance of the ‘personal landscape’ – i.e. the spatial, visual and kinetic experience of the individual or groups inhabiting the site.