A degree of design

Tough competition for students and funding has brought a blossoming of bold new university buildings that celebrate and facilitate 21st-century learning in more ways than one. Veronica Simpson takes a tour.

There's a new boulevard that extends through the building site behind King's Cross station, stretching up and over Regent's Canal. At the pinnacle of this still pristine, paved promenade stands a bold barn of a building: the new Central Saint Martins school of Arts and Design (CSM). If this converted grain warehouse epitomises the area's aspirations to become a new cultural quarter, it heralds nothing less than a rebirth for this iconic London college.

The new 40,000 sq m venue draws staff, departments and facilities from 11 buildings at six central London sites and houses them together for the first time. From the light-drenched top floor looking down on to the activity across four lower floors - print makers in their studios, drama students brainstorming on the wide balconies, budding fashion gurus posing, eating and networking at the cafe tables or milling around the central street - it feels like an incredibly functional, elegant solution to the problem of how to facilitate and stimulate creativity in the 21st century.

Stanton Williams's CSM building is just one of hundreds of new university and college buildings around the world that have opened in the past three years. Why is this new wave of educational reinvention happening, and why now? Is it simply because the need to attract high-fee-paying students and top-ranking scientists and academics (to help justify the fees) has put so much pressure on higher-education establishments that shiny new buildings have become the preferred currency of scholarly one-upmanship? Or has academia undergone some kind of learning revolution and old, boxy, compartmentalised buildings - often scattered around a city centre - are just not fit for purpose any longer?

Schmidt Hammer Lassen would argue the latter. These Danish architects have designed a new £102m flagship campus for the City of Westminster College to 'support new ways of teaching and learning'. Open learning spaces, plus state-of-the-art theatre and exhibition facilities, support a multiplatform teaching programme for the 7,000 full and part-time students that are said to pass through its doors each year.

Gleaming new learning super-hubs of further education clearly throw an unfavourable light on Europe's ancient, venerable - and often rather dog-eared - universities. But there are other, equally compelling, factors for the educational architectural reinvention. Warren Jukes is director of Birmingham-based Associated Architects. Since 1989 his practice has worked closely with 14 diverse higher-education clients, completing some 100 projects to date. He agrees that architecture and design have become a central part of higher-education marketing as well as programming. But, he says, 'this is not new. It's just that the other sectors are so depressed that everyone is more aware that universities are doing a lot of work.'

However, Jukes concurs that a lot of current activity is driven by a greater awareness of what good design can achieve in space efficiencies and energy savings; universities face draconian fines if they fail to achieve stringent carbon-emission reductions, having signed up to a major, sector-wide energy reduction programme. There is also widespread recognition that the old, segregated university department buildings, often scattered across city campuses, cannot facilitate the massive shift in teaching and learning that has taken place in the past five years - fuelled by internet-enabled information sharing - towards far more cross-disciplinary, collaborative educational practices. It's also a question of timing, says Jukes, pointing out that the last major building boom for Europe's universities and colleges was in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and these buildings have come to the end of their useful life.

Ultimately, the move towards an American-style, high fee-paying higher-education model means that universities, to attract the best staff and students, have to give them more of what they want. And what they want is vibrant group-working areas, state-of-the-art lecture and performance theatres, conference facilities and libraries, and a multitude of opportunities to connect with their fellow students, both within working/study time and beyond.

Says Jukes: 'Our client at Birmingham City University's Institute of Art and Design (BIAD) told us: "The new building has to beat the competition or it's not worth delivering".' Associated Architects' new £50m building combines BIAD with Birmingham City University's faculty of performance, media and English, providing a media hub of TV and radio studios together with creative workshops, thus giving a huge shared advantage to courses in theatre, lighting, design, film, animation and editing. It aims to get a 20 per cent reduction in space provision and still grow student numbers by 20 per cent.

Centralised resources can mean huge efficiencies, but location is just as much part of the equation - nearly all of these newly focused faculties are being located in desirable areas - city centres usually - close to transport networks, shops and nightlife. Alejandro Zaera-Polo, formerly of Foreign Office Architects (FOA) but now directing his own practice (AZPA), says location is a key factor in attracting staff and students. Zaera-Polo says competition is so intense now that, 'for universities not so centrally located and with no [established field of] excellence in what they do, the situation is going to become critical.'

FOA's flamboyant design for Ravensbourne's new building celebrates both its destination - a Greenwich Peninsula location , right by the O2 Arena - and its move to somewhere more edgy than its former home in the sleepy suburbs of Chiselhurst, though it's still hardly 'central'.

A standout building alone can clearly make the difference in boosting applications to a tricky location. At the other end of the UK, in Aberdeen, part of the justification for commissioning Schmidt Hammer Lassen to create an iconic new library for Aberdeen University was to jolt potential students out of any reluctance to venture that far north for an education. The resulting building was described as 'magical' by the RIBA journal. The dean who commissioned the building (Professor Sir Duncan Rice) wanted a place that would work hard and justify its budget. He got it. Inside, a dizzying whorl of stacked atria ascend to the heavens, each floor a welcoming, open-plan space where students can learn in whatever style or grouping they wish.

The previous library - even though it was only some 25 years old - is described succinctly by practice co-founder Morten Schmidt as 'Crap. It consisted of so many awkward spaces. It had low ceilings, lots of asbestos, really bad climate and no potential for improvement.' The new building has transformed the use of the library and the way students are studying. Says Schmidt: 'Normally there's a certain percentage of students that use the library but otherwise study at home. Now it's a substantially bigger number working there - around 5,000 a day. They like to be able to cross-reference, to work together for longer rather than sit at home in a little room.' The area closest to the balconies, at the centre of the atrium action, is most popular. There are even regular tours of this major new Aberdeen landmark. Says head librarian Chris Banks: 'There are students registering who never came into the old library.' The most recent figures reveal an 87 per cent increase.

Even those universities with the utmost global cachet - such as Oxford or Cambridge - have to commission buildings that try a little harder. One of the stated aims for Oxford University's new Biochemistry Building was to attract the best researchers. The university wanted to create, according to its associate head of biochemistry Denis O'Driscoll, 'a spectacular building that students and researchers would want to come and work in, not just because it is in Oxford but because it is a "happening building".'

But there is so much more to this new educational architecture than good looks. Real culture change is being effected through the gathering of many previously scattered faculty outposts under one umbrella, as CSM's new building demonstrates. Thanks to the largely glazed studio spaces, fashion students can now gaze in on architects at work, mingle with graphics and sculpture students in the canteen and new library, and browse through a phenomenal resource of archive and learning material created through the pooling of all the libraries from the disparate art colleges that have, over the years, been absorbed by CSM.

What Stanton Williams has done is celebrate the texture and scale of the original grain warehouse and create a highly functional, subtle building that operates almost as a blank canvas on which the CSM students are invited to apply their own cultural or individual expressions. Architect Paul Williams talks about the building as being in a 'state of transformation'. He says: 'Each school of graphics, printing, fashion, starts off with basically the same physical kind of space and it is up to them to customise it.'

They have all brought their own chairs and tables from their previous buildings. There are pin-up walls of bare plywood for posters, banners and projections. There is plenty of space for pop-up architecture on the internal 'street', or large-scale constructions in the ground-floor workshops and their canopied exterior areas, formerly used for housing trains. Students can even take charge of the public square at the front of the building for performances and exhibitions. 'Which other college offers that? Williams asks.

If there is excitement now about the creation of these connective silos of combined creativity, there is just as much excitement about the synergies that can result from once disparate departments being housed under one architectural umbrella.

Penoyre & Prasad is master planning a new, concentrated site for the University of Portsmouth's Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries. The practice is designing a new building that will link two existing ones to house all of Portsmouth's art, design, film, media, technology and built environment disciplines in one space. Ian Goodfellow, Penoyre & Prasad partner, says the university is excited about the opportunities for synergies and cross-fertilisation between departments, created as much by the departments' visibility and display spaces as by subject adjacencies. 'There will be a large exhibition space... to showcase the students' work to each other and the general public, as well as screening rooms. It will raise the level of energy for the faculty and raises facilities to the level of rival faculties around the world,' he says.

The University of Wales, Newport, has also seen a boost in student interest and momentum around its new campus, housing the schools of business and technology and the school of art and design. Not only is the space made more exciting and visually dynamic through a changing programme of exhibitions in the entrance foyer, and concerts and performances in its theatre spaces, but it also offers exciting new possibilities for its MBA and outreach programmes.

Inevitably, the process of designing these buildings has enforced a profound consideration, by client universities, architects and designers, of what learning in the 21st century means and how best (and most profitably) these teaching organisations and spaces can provide it.

Interesting new models are emerging: Ravensbourne, for example, has ditched its workshops (space will be hired, as and when needed, from professional studios) but provides incubator space for graduate start-up schemes, as well as professional studio space, in the hope of mingling professionals and students to create one dynamic hub of creative business and learning. Additional cultural capital has been generated by involving scientists, economists and technophiles in the creative business of making new spaces.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Oxford University's new Biochemistry Building is the use of art. From the outset, the faculty wanted a 'creative' building - though little did it predict that the individual heads of department would become so inspired by the experience of working with artists and the idea of integrating art within the building that the art budget would be boosted from £15,000 initially to £300,000 (all funds were raised through a dedicated agency).

Nicky Hirst was consultant artist throughout the project, working with the faculty's steering committee and architects. Her proposal was to use art to 'expose and exploit the mechanisms of wonder'. She created a series of 'ink blot' images that decorate the glass facade around the entrance, and has placed a piece called Portal in the cafe. Other artists - Tim Head, Peter Fraser, Annie Cattrell - either explored the nature of the building's transformation in minute detail and the building blocks thereof, or created patterns that explore the beauty of randomness and chance.

The process of working with the artists took the biochemistry department on something of a journey of discovery. Morag Morrison, associate director of Hawkins\Brown, observed the scientist/artist collaborations with some relish: 'The value of the art project was that it helped to give the client group confidence to discuss the visual and aesthetic aspects of the building, and it helped them - and therefore us - in making decisions with the design of the building as well.' Professor Mark Sansom, head of bio-infomatics, so enjoyed the experience of observing and talking with artist Tim Head - whose carefully randomised patterns of light and colour now appear as a light installation and a carpet pattern in the building - that he hopes some excuse can be found to repeat the process. He says the experience of working with the artists has also helped him and his team in visualising how to express and communicate their work at symposia.

Whether the art and the building itself directly impacts on the science - inspiring or motivating greater productivity - is harder to quantify. Genetics professor Jonathan Hodgkin, who was on the steering committee, thinks so: 'If you actually asked the scientists is the art work inspirational to you, they will say no. But they like it. People are quite proud of it. I find it inspirational. Having worked all my scientific life in buildings that are uninspiring, it's nice to be in one that remains striking and uplifting.'

What Hodgkin is certain of is that it has helped in attracting a high calibre of students and staff: 'It has had an impact. Particularly senior scientists are very inspired and like the idea of working here. It's unquestionably a plus factor.' The building is believed to have been a key component in luring prize-winning biochemist Professor Kim Nasmyth from his role as director of Vienna's Institute of Molecular Pathology to head up Oxford's biochemistry department.

The ripples from this building's careful and considered creation are continuing to spread across the campus. Says Hodgkin: 'One thing conspicuous now is that every building getting put up in Oxford University has to have an arts programme as part of the building strategy. ... This building is seen very much as an exemplar.'

Beyond the cerebral confines of the university quad, some of the most exciting new learning spaces are those that connect key learning and teaching facilities with the wider community.

Newport master planners had a clear vision that the creation of a new waterfront destination for the city centre, with a landmark pedestrian bridge by Grimshaw, would achieve real traction only if BDP's new University of South Wales campus was located there. As Chris Harding, BDP's head of education, says: 'How do you regenerate a city centre? You put a university right at the heart of it.'

BDP has worked its regenerative charms on many university campuses of late - including Cambridge, York and Sunderland. But Harding issues a word of warning to any college gearing up to transform their estates along more competitive, progressive lines: 'It's great that deans are saying the physical environment is important. Sometimes that results in an architectural dead duck being produced.

'What's really important is working closely with the user and shaping the building around them. The site and the context: these are key.'

Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design
Stanton Williams's building for London's leading art and design centre celebrates the texture and heritage of the vast brick facades from the Grade II listed Victorian grain warehouse it once was by juxtaposing huge white slabs of wall and ceiling, great stretches of glass, beautifully detailed steel balustrades and poured concrete floors. There is no unnecessary adornment or embellishment beyond the genius stroke of making the floor surface of the central street (as well as those of the 5m-wide linking bridges) a vast sea of hand-laid oak parquet cubes (1.5 million of them), adding warmth, richness and texture.

The main entrance and lobby space is topped with four floors of state-of-the-art library and archive facilities, overlooking the soon-to-be-finished public piazza with King's Cross beyond it. The interior view is on to glazed link bridges and the 'street' at the core of the building. This street is bisected by another public internal avenue with east and west entrances, overlooked by a gallery/showcase space and providing a public and student route to the artisan shops planned for the adjacent building. Two theatres, plus performance spaces and cafeteria/ bar all lead off the central street, which easily converts to public realm when fashion shows or performances require.

Workshops are divided by noise and impact, with quiet workspaces on the west wing and high-impact spaces placed along the east wall, and layered logically, with the heaviest and largest-scale work on the ground floor, moving up through ceramics to fashion at the top. Stanton Williams' director Paul Williams says: 'We are trying to allow the listed elements to provide the texture and grain. What we've added in the way of materials is quite quiet in order for the students to express themselves in whatever they do.'

Client: Central Saint Martins
Architect: Stanton Williams
Fit-out: Pringle Brandon
Cost: £92m construction
Area: 40,000 s qm /
Completed: September 2011
Environmental/services engineering: Atelier 10
Architectural lighting: Spiers + Major
Graphics: Phil Baines (Professor of typography at CSM)

University of Wales, Newport
Newport is the key university for the South Wales region, but increased competition both regionally and nationally inspired a substantial upgrade of facilities. It made the move of bringing together all its faculties - the schools of business and technology along with the art, media and design school - under one flexible, interactive and collaborative roof. BDP worked closely with the heads of department to create a solution for the tight, urban site that had been identified for the university as part of a major city masterplan.

Built on an old shipyard, the building layers activities vertically. Ground level houses an impressive public foyer, performance space and gallery - now used to display a rotating programme of student exhibitions. The mid level houses a tiered library and restaurant, which forms the sociable heart of the building. Furniture is arranged for a variety of working configurations, from group projects to solo study. Upper levels house sound and television studios, workshop and teaching space wrapped around a yellow timber-clad 'hothouse' suspended in the centre of the space. Only heads of department have their own offices, glazed and looking on to the open-plan academic office area.

The shape of the building, housing 2,700 students, maximises visual and physical connections with the city and waterfront setting. Generous glazing turns the building into a shop window for education and learning. The glazing also gives views from every interior space, over the newly regenerated waterfront and the striking Grimshaw/Atkins pedestrian and cyclists bridge which links east and west banks of the River Usk. Says BDP's head of education Chris Harding: 'It has completely changed the way people move through the city. It's created a new centre of gravity and the university is right at this crossing point.' It has also transformed the culture and identity of the university, boosting applications. It won an RIBA award in 2011, and was also shortlisted for a World Architecture Festival award.

Client: University of Wales Newport
Architect/landscaping/interior design: BDP
Cost: £35m
Area: 12,500 sq m
Completed: March 2011

Aberdeen University Library
Schmidt Hammer Lassen's library for Aberdeen University is a statement of ambition as well as a celebration of learning. Commissioned to create an iconic building that would help draw students up to this, the UK's most northerly university (and one of the most ancient), the architects delivered - and then some. Morten Schmidt, founding partner, says the exterior was initially intended to be a 'veil' through which learning could be glimpsed, both inside and out. 'It is a metamorphosis of the historical granite buildings.'

The surrounding architecture of Feldspar granite buildings, broken up by tall windows, is reversed here, with the glass providing darkness while white solid elements dance across its fascia like vertical rock striations or connective tissues viewed under a microscope. Around 15 types of angled and painted panels are used to clad the exterior, their variegated shapes and intervals casting fancy shadows on to the interior study spaces and bookshelves.

The building itself is a simple concrete frame structure with two cores from which the floors and central atria are hung. The atria are stacked at angles, creating an organic-shaped vortex from the glazed roof-section down - a symbolic reference, says Schmidt, to 'universal knowledge coming down from the heavens'. Equally symbolically, the library's collection of rare books is stored in the basement mezzanine, forming a bedrock of ancient learning on which students can build. The further up the building you go, the quieter it gets, but noise is cushioned by acoustic panelling in the otherwise open ceilings by extensive carpeting and the books themselves.

The height of the library means that it can be viewed from anywhere across the campus, as well as from the city. Likewise, views out over campus and city abound from its upper storeys. In this way it fulfils the client's ambition for it to be an icon for the city as well as the university.
Client: Aberdeen University
Architect: Schmidt Hammer Lassen
Cost: £57m
Area: 15,500 sq m
Completed: September 2011


Location is an increasingly important factor in the appeal of higher education establishments, but it was a bold move for design and communications college Ravensbourne to relocate from its leafy suburban Chislehurst location to a new building in the characterless landscape of the Greenwich Peninsula.

Foreign Office Architects's building takes its cues from the dean Robin Baker's vision for a progressive, highly interactive space, as well as responding to the scale and form of its nearest neighbour, the O2 Arena. Former FOA co-director, Alejandro Zaera-Polo's (now with his own practice AZPA), says: 'If we had made only a conventional education building the 02 Arena would overpower it.'

There's no danger of the Ravensbourne building being overpowered: its shape is more ambiguous but of a comparable scale to the 02, and its fascia glitters like a disco ball in comparison. Zaera-Polo calls it a 'silo of knowledge, decorated with wallpaper', but the wallpaper here is a complex, non-periodic pattern of 28,000 anodised aluminium tiles, in three colours and a multitude of configurations, each responding to seven varieties of circular windows across its surface.

The surface cladding was inspired by gothic rose windows and William Morris flower prints, in keeping with Ravensbourne's arts & crafts-inspired beginnings, but digitally abstracted to reflect the college's commitment to digital design.

The interior provides 17,000 sq m of free-flowing, inter-disciplinary, open-plan workspaces over four interconnected storeys. The ground floor incorporates 1,700 sq m of public space, including cafe and retail. A north-end atrium is open to the public/professionals, while a south atrium is reserved for staff and students, and is suspended from steel girders over the ground-floor lecture hall. Interior bridges and staircases provide sightlines throughout.
Client: Ravensbourne
Architect/interiors: ForeignOfficeArchitects (FOA)
Cost: £43m
Area: 17,000 sq m
Completed: 2010

Biochemistry Building, Oxford University

Oxford's new Biochemistry Building has wrought something of a revolution in the perception of the faculty both locally and abroad. Architecture practice Hawkins\Brown was briefed to create a space that promotes and facilitates scientific research and consolidates the operations of a faculty which had previously been scattered across seven buildings. The new building brings together more than 300 scientists and highly specialist equipment in a layout that encourages interaction and a sense of collective endeavour.

The exterior of the 12,000 sq m structure (9,200 sq m of usable space) is striking, creating a vertical emphasis to contrast with the largely horizontal modern science department buildings nearby. Glass fins are scattered across four-storeys over the main elevation, the rich autumnal colours of which reflect tones of historic Oxford buildings - ochre, orange and yellow ironstone, purple and red-blue bricks. Laboratories, unusually, are placed around the glazed exterior, benefitting from natural light and keeping scientists attuned to the passing of time and nature around them. Write-up areas sit adjacent to each lab, open to the central atrium but still discrete from it. Staircases criss-cross from floor to floor, swinging out into the centre or intersecting in seemingly random patterns that suggest movement (Hogwart's style). Informal meeting spaces are scattered throughout - and appear to be well used.

The use of art throughout, as well as the subtle interior palette, create an aspirational and civilised space. Artist Nicky Hirst's 'ink blot' glass prints animate the entrance, projecting lace-like shadows on sunny days, and enriching the texture of the interiors, as does her Portal installation that part-screens the lively entrance cafe from the atrium. Photographer Peter Fraser's giant close-ups of elements of the building process sit boldly in key public spaces, as do Tim Head's light installation and carpet design, and Annie Cattrell's flock of birds that descend, chandelier style, from the roof into the atrium.

Client: Biochemistry Faculty, University of Oxford
Architect/interior designers: Hawkins\Brown
Cost: £49m
Area: 12,000 sq m
Completed: 2009
Artists: Nicky Hirst, Tim Head, Peter Fraser, Annie Cattrell

University of Portsmouth
Two exciting new buildings are underway at the University of Portsmouth, one aimed at enhancing the creative and collaborative experience for visual arts and technology students, the other substantially enriching learning for drama students while supporting one of Portsmouth's key historic buildings.

The New Theatre Royal, one of the last Phipps/Matcham theatres, has joined forces with the University of Portsmouth in a shared scheme whose heritage, artistic and innovative elements helped win it substantial heritage lottery funding. The theatre is now guaranteed a future thanks to the Penoyre & Prasad scheme. That will see backstage facilities restored and expanded and the creation of new learning and performance spaces. A new shared entrance and foyer will open on to a 150-seat space (teaching facility by day, studio theatre by night). Cutting-edge back-of-house facilities will be built, along with a TV studio and specialist teaching facilities.

The contemporary materials and language of the new-build elements aim to complement the historic theatre. The exterior is in a similar-toned brick to the theatre's, with anodised aluminium rainscreen cladding at higher levels, and the new flytower in a gold anodised finish. An additional block of 113 units of student housing is arranged in cluster flats above the theatre/arts building, clad in silver and gold anodized panels.

Penoyre & Prasad has also masterplanned a new, unified cluster of buildings for the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries (FCCI). Two existing buildings will be connected via a central courtyard and a new 4,600 sq m Penoyre & Prasad building that brings all the faculty elements into one highly connective space. The new Eldon Building provides open-plan offices for academic and administration staff, a postgraduate centre, and a glazed, street-facing entrance with views through to an atrium-lit exhibition space with cafe, shop and seminar rooms and lecture theatre beyond.

A corten steel-clad main stair rises up through the atrium with views to the cafe and into the courtyard beyond. As a new home for Portsmouth's built environment studies, the Eldon Building aims to be an exemplar of sustainability: a narrow footprint plus the atrium design maximises natural ventilation and lighting, floors are stepped back to the south to maximise natural daylight, while a ground-source heat pump provides medium grade heat throughout the year.

Client: New Theatre Royal & Watkins Jones Group Guildhall Walk, and University of Portsmouth (for theatres scheme). University of Portsmouth (for Eldon Building)
Architects: Penoyre&Prasad
Cost: Theatre: £11m, Eldon Building: £10m
Area: Eldon Building: 4,600 sq m
Completed: Both due in 2013

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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