The Bartlett by Hawkins\Brown


The Bartlett School of Architecture in London has finally got a building to match its world-class reputation in the form of Hawkins\Brown’s sensitive remodelling of the old Wates House into a lean, robust building that pays respect to its surroundings and connects students to the city around them



All Photography – Jack Hobhouse

For all its pitfalls, there was something unquantifiable about The Bartlett School of Architecture’s home at 22 Gordon Street that captured the soul. The Seventies’ slab of a building, Wates House, may have been an unsightly pockmark on the University College London campus, an embarrassing site among the genteel Bloomsbury squares and terraces, but inside it was a rabbit warren of feverish creative activity. Staff and students developed a love/hate relationship with it, bemoaning its claustrophobic quarters and chilly corridors bespeckled with spray paint while secretly relishing its intense, intoxicating atmosphere.

22 Gordon Street has been fully reclad in a skin of textured, waterstruck bricks22 Gordon Street has been fully reclad in a skin of textured, waterstruck bricks

In 2006 I remember waiting nervously for my admissions interview (I went on to spend four years there) and gazing up at the cardboard models that dangled overhead from the ceiling. The black, twisted forms of dried banana skins hung from them - it wasn’t quite clear whether this was some kind of art installation or the students had simply discarded them there for want of a more suitable bin. Either way, from that first impression it became clear that this was a place for the speculative, experimental and imaginative, somewhere to test and push the boundaries of architecture and design to the limits.

Yet the fact remained that The Bartlett had produced world-class architects, Stirling Prize winners and RIBA Gold Medallists, but it had by far the ugliest building on the prestigious UCL campus — and looks weren’t its only problem.

The new and improved home of The Bartlett is a robust building that connects to its city settingThe new and improved home of The Bartlett is a robust building that connects to its city setting

Sited on the corner of Gordon Street and Endsleigh Gardens in London’s Euston, Wates House was built in 1974 for a construction cost of £640,000. Designed by Architects’ Co Partnership Incorporated, the nondescript, utilitarian, brick building was conceived to accommodate the 90 staff and 380 students making the move from the front quadrangle of UCL.

 An axonometric showing the building’s new staircase, designed to improve wayfinding and foster interaction throughout the building

An axonometric showing the building’s new staircase, designed to improve wayfinding and foster interaction throughout the building

By 2012 there was more than 2,000 students crammed in. Offices were jam-packed, studio spaces overflowing and the workshop had long outgrown itself. With student numbers increasing and the building bulging at the seams, it was decided in 2012 that Wates House needed a drastic overhaul.

The building reduces in size towards its east elevation, paying respect to the Georgian terraces adjacent to itThe building reduces in size towards its east elevation, paying respect to the Georgian terraces adjacent to it

‘It had got to the point where the building was starting to suffocate the school. There wasn’t enough space to do what we wanted to do and it was putting people off coming here,’ says Bob Sheil, director of The Bartlett School of Architecture.

Once an eyesore in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, now the building fits comfortably into its historic settingOnce an eyesore in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, now the building fits comfortably into its historic setting

After previously appointing several different architects to prepare feasibility studies, none of which gained any real traction, UCL picked Hawkins\Brown to oversee the project. It was to be a priority in UCL Estates’ £1.2bn Transforming UCL programme, a 10-year scheme to upgrade its dense, complex estate with new sustainable spaces. ‘The school was becoming a victim of its own success and this building was really coming to the end of its use,’ says Euan Macdonald, partner at Hawkins\Brown. ‘It was chronically underproviding the space needed. The building was insular, inward-looking, with a racetrack plan and vertical cores that were anonymous and difficult to navigate. We’ve tried to unstraightjacket the building.’

West elevationWest elevation

But pleasing the architects, planners, urban designers, lecturers and students of one of the world’s best architecture schools, each with their own very strong opinion on what the new school should look like, was no easy task. Some had been in the same office for the past 30 years and many had very set ideas about what they wanted.

East elevationEast elevation

It took two years of intense consultation with The Bartlett for Hawkins\Brown to gain an understanding of the building’s flaws and decide on a ‘deep retrofit’ approach, rather than full-scale demolition or expensive new-build. ‘Initially the project started out as a windowreplacement strategy and modest extension but we soon realised that a sticking-plaster solution would not work and that we had to think a lot bigger and more holistically,’ says Macdonald.

The previously inward-looking building has been remodelled to connect better to the city around it and reveal its inner activityThe previously inward-looking building has been remodelled to connect better to the city around it and reveal its inner activity

Today the new 22 Gordon Street is a lean, robust building with efficiently designed floorplates that have increased the school’s usable area from 2,800 sq m to 6,300 sq m. The existing building was entirely stripped back to the original structural concrete frame and two cores. Original columns have been strengthened and new steelwork put in place.

A new staircase was conceived to connect students and staff and act as a ‘social generator’A new staircase was conceived to connect students and staff and act as a ‘social generator’

A floor has been added, bringing the building to six storeys and a basement, while a new seven-storey extension has been inserted over the old workshop yard along the south-eastern edge of the school’s volume. Says Sheil: ‘The one thing we asked for loudly and clearly was more space, no bling please; we didn’t want money spent on anything that was superfluous.’

The previous fifth floor faculty library and fourth-floor School of Planning have been moved into a nearby campus building, freeing up much-needed space for the architecture department’s 1,000 students. A key move has been adding a 1.5m strip of extra space around the perimeter of the existing building, allowing it to fit more snuggly on its site footprint without the need for the original concrete plinth that blocks the school off from the street at ground level. ‘It may sound like a very small gesture but when you add that up over six floors it adds a significant amount of additional area,’ says Macdonald.

A new staircase was conceived to connect students and staff and act as a ‘social generator’A new staircase was conceived to connect students and staff and act as a ‘social generator’

Externally the structure has been reclad in light, handmade, German, waterstruck brick, with repetitive window frames and reveals lined in anodised aluminium that pay respect to the proportions of the surrounding historic architecture. Says Macdonald: ‘We didn’t want to impose a style on the next generation of architects; we wanted to create what we feel is a neutral vessel, calm and pared down.’

One of the fundamental concepts of the project was opening up the building to not only the surrounding UCL campus but also the wider city of London and the architectural profession. This is an urban building at the heart of a dense, thriving city, not on a remote campus in the sticks, and The Bartlett wants to show that it’s engaging with the world.

Previously cramped and oversubscribed, spacious new studios offer one desk per studentPreviously cramped and oversubscribed, spacious new studios offer one desk per student

Previously the building was an isolated, closed-off edifice, with windows covered over and a cramped lobby space unsuitable for large public events or exhibitions. Now, visitors enter through a large, double-height entrance space that leads to a small cafe area and a generous exhibition space lined with windows, looking on to Gordon Street.

Breakout spaces can be divided off with moveable partitions for individual tutorials or group critsBreakout spaces can be divided off with moveable partitions for individual tutorials or group crits

‘This is the shopfront, landmark corner of the building, with views that orientate out towards the city. It was historically a very repetitious, mundane, rigorous building, and we’re tried to animate it,’ explains Macdonald. ‘At the end-of-year show the whole building can open up to the street. We want to encourage that interaction and people to use the building; it’s not a closed door, it is an open, transparent, accessible and, in a way, a semi-civic, building.’

Ground floor and Second FloorGround floor and Second Floor

Shared teaching rooms and a 100-person-capacity room for talks and lectures occupy the quieter northern corner of the ground floor, while a hole has been punched through to the chemistry lecture theatre to allow the school to use it for larger events and its international lecture series.

Fifth Floor and Sixth FloorFifth Floor and Sixth Floor

On entering the building views are drawn to a new sculptural, dark-steel staircase at the end of the lobby that twists and turns up the six storeys, part of the new-build extension that has been slotted on the side. The original staircase cores are retained, but they were always hidden away, burrowed deep in the building.

This new gesture provides a visual connection through the school, helping users navigate and encouraging interaction. While previously visitors and students were separated into those inside the building (and who knew where the stairs were) and those coming and going via the lifts, this acts as a statement of the building’s intention to be a democratic, sociable space. Large landings off the staircase have been left as deliberately unprogrammed for students to appropriate as they wish. Says Macdonald: ‘ We’re trying to create that indeterminate space the building never had before; everything was shoehorned in.’

Breakout spaces can be divided off with moveable partitions for individual tutorials or group critsBreakout spaces can be divided off with moveable partitions for individual tutorials or group crits

This aspect of sociability is further reinforced by positioning students and staff on the same floors, unlike in the old Wates House. The basement is home to workshop machinery and CNC facilities, and the first floor has administrative space and shared teaching rooms. On the second to sixth floors, student studio spaces are arranged around the perimeter of the building with the maximum amount of light and the best views, while smaller offices for staff and academics are tucked away along the more private south-east facade at the back of the building. Whereas previously there were 300 dedicated desks for 800 architecture students, now there is one desk per student.

Doors have been widened to open up closed-off spaces, while built-in benches along corridors ‘create nooks to help humanise the building’, says Macdonald. To encourage an open-door policy, staff offices also have a door that can cleverly fold back on the shelves behind and be locked to allow rooms to be left open but valuables stored away. The sixth floor, home to first-year students, has a small terrace and a new, doubleheight, double-aspect Friend’s Room looking over the junction of Euston towards the Wellcome Collection, for seminars, meetings, and architects and alumni to pop in as they please.

The double-aspect Friend’s Room looks over Euston and the Wellcome Collection building oppositeThe double-aspect Friend’s Room looks over Euston and the Wellcome Collection building opposite

There are little nods to the old building here and there if you know where to look. Elements of the original structure have been carefully revealed where the existing concrete columns meet the new steel of the extension, while the new 1.5m perimeter addition to the perimeter of the building has been expressed in light timber — described as a ‘tactile inner lining’ by the architect — to highlight old and new. ‘As a school for architects and the built environment we want to use the building a little bit as an examplar project to explain how things are put together,’ explains Macdonald.

There is one wonderful detail where the old bright-blue handrail of the stairwell meets the new wooden handrail rising up to the new sixth floor. Elsewhere, materials have been kept neutral and hardwearing with concrete floors, white walls, plywood joinery and accents of cork, allowing the building to act as a blank canvas for the users to change and adapt. ‘We’re just trying to be honest about what the building is,’ opines Macdonald.

Top-floor studios provide breathtaking views of the rooftops of BloomsburyTop-floor studios provide breathtaking views of the rooftops of Bloomsbury

One of the revelations of the new building is how it unlocks views across the city. Previously you never had a real sense of where you were in London; there were windows but you couldn’t really see anything out of them. Rooms felt dark and cramped. Now, floor-to-ceiling glazing brings the city right into the building, from the rooftops and chimney pots of the Bloomsbury terraces viewed from the top floors, to the red London buses whizzing past the corner of the building.

Hawkins\Brown has managed to eke out every inch of this compact, constrained urban site, but looking ahead even this new and improved building will not provide the space The Bartlett needs to move forward. Its completion crowns a year of celebrations for The Bartlett’s 175th anniversary, but the next century or two will see the school pushing boundaries into almost unrecognisable territories.

UCL is taking on a 3,000 sq m space in Here East, the former press and broadcast centre on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford that is being repurposed for London’s creative and digital industries. Under construction and also designed by Hawkins\Brown, the vast, versatile space will allow the university to do ground-breaking research into advanced fabrication, robotics and engineering, while adding new education programmes in film and performance.

The Bartlett was the best of the best even with a hideous building. Technology will continue to draw the crème de la crème of students, but maybe all the best student needs is a drawing pad, pen in hand and a view out to the city.





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