The once controversial home of the Royal College of Physicians recently celebrated its 50th birthday. We discover a modernist building that hides a surprising trove of traditional spaces
This was an elegant, gracious street, and now they slap us in the face with this thing.’ So commented one newspaper critic when, back in 1964, the Royal College of Physicians opened its fifth and current home in Regent’s Park. With its stark, off-white exterior, surrounded by grand Regency mansions and the greenery of the adjacent royal park, I can see why there was initial concern. However, I happen to love brutalist buildings, and specifically the work of Sir Denys Lasdun (who also designed the National Theatre), so as I approach for a show-round, I’m immediately a fan.
‘I like to call it love at second sight,’ says Natacha Allen, sales and marketing manager at the venue. Brutalism might not be to everyone’s taste, but Natacha explains that while potential clients are often surprised that England’s oldest medical college is housed in such a modernist building, its ‘dichotomy of old and new, traditional and quirky’ event spaces tends to win them over.
ANATOMY OF A BUILDING
After climbing the cubist staircase in the Marble Hall, I begin my tour in the Censors Room, one of 18 event spaces. I’m surprised to find it clad in ornate wood, complete with a vast chandelier, marble busts and oil paintings. The Spanish oak panelling was originally from one of the college’s former homes, in Warwick Lane, and dates back to the late 17th century. I also spy a portrait of Henry VIII, and discover that it was his royal charter that founded the college in 1518. The aim was to standardise medicine and punish unqualified practitioners.
The Censors Room was traditionally used for conducting the demanding interviews that potential fellows would undergo before becoming a member of the college. These days, it provides space for boardroom meetings or private dinners for up to 20 guests. I get to experience the fine dining offering at the venue by way of scallops with white-chocolate foam, followed by guinea fowl with pressed-leg terrine and smoked potato purée, cooked by in-house caterer Fare of London
. The china, adorned with the college crest, adds to the sense of occasion in the room.
After lunch, it’s on to the Council Chamber. This 100-capacity space was opened in 1998, as part of an extension designed (again by Lasdun) to host the college’s council meetings. Walking in, I’m reminded of Star Wars.
There’s something about the circular dome that’s reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon
. There are skylights but they’re hidden, letting in natural daylight while retaining a sense of privacy. Particularly well suited to meetings, the space contains acoustic panels, allowing sound to travel across the room without the aid of microphones. Pretty impressive.
For larger conferences and screenings, there are two lecture theatres: the Wolfson Theatre, which can hold 304 delegates, and the newer Seligman Theatre, which has space for 140. Each comes with newly refurbished raked seating, a built-in keypad voting system, LED uplighting and HD projectors. In-house streaming services and virtual meeting rooms will be introduced in the new year.
On exiting the Seligman Theatre, I discover a great breakout spot: the Treasures Room. Here, I spend the next 20 minutes poring over the institution’s prized artefacts: a diamond donated by Catherine the Great, the college’s 17th-century ceremonial mace, a collection of apothecary jars, a leech-carrying case, and an impressive number of ornate tongue scrapers. Safe to say, there’s rather a lot of history to get through, and plenty for guests to talk about at an event.
In addition to the Treasures Room, there is a changing exhibition on the first floor, along with a permanent collection of over 300 portraits. They can be viewed by groups between meetings or ahead of a drinks reception. Guided tours are also on offer in the venue’s pretty medicinal garden. A living museum made up of over 1,300 plants and herbs, the outdoor space makes a good spot for post-conference drinks receptions and summer parties for 200 guests. I can testify to this myself, having attended Fare of London’s summer showcase. Guests soaked up the evening sunshine on picnic blankets, feasting on the venue’s new range of street food dishes and picking at the biggest cheeseboard I’ve ever seen.
Further nods to the college’s history are immediately apparent in the Dorchester Library. This impressive book-lined space contains rare tomes that were saved from the Great Fire of London. More traditional than the modern lecture theatres and the Council Chamber, the library is an atmospheric spot for dinners of up to 120 guests. A drop-down screen and hidden AV system combine to serve up conference facilities for up to 96 delegates.
The college’s collections officer Peter Basham shows me some of the rare books in the venue’s library. In my case, he has deliberately geared his selection towards the events industry, and shows me an illustrated guide on how to carve fruit for a banquet from the 1700s. It’s a nice extra, and something that Peter can also research and recreate for themed parties and subject-specific meetings.
After celebrating the 50th anniversary of the building last year, the college is now looking towards 2018, when the institution itself will be 500 years old. Natacha tells me that special promotions and packages will be on the cards, as well as a royal visit. Until then, the modernist masterpiece will no doubt continue to stand out for the right reasons. I certainly didn’t need that second viewing Natacha spoke of to be convinced.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Royal College of Physicians has had five homes since it was founded in 1518: Knightrider Street, Amen Corner, Warwick Lane, Pall Mall and now Regent’s Park.
The exterior of the RCP building is not made of raw concrete, as it might appear. Instead, it’s made of porcelain mosaic tiles, in a nod to Byzantine churches. It means it’s stayed relatively clean over the course of 50 years.
The college is an independent professional membership organisation, with charitable status, representing over 30,000 physicians. As such, the venue can only host events that are in sympathy with its medical ethos. Organise events for a cigarette company? No chance, mate.
Within the venue’s collection is a rare set of six human anatomical tables, which are among the oldest of their kind still surviving in the world. They display preserved veins, nerves and arteries on varnished wooden panels. Lovely stuff.
Royal College of Physicians
11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park NW1 4LE, tel: 020 7034 4919
Meetings - 300
Dinners - 264
Reception - 400
This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, Autumn 2015