O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Student Centre for the LSE zig zags out of the ground – a dramatic, angular statement layered with intense detail
This is such a pleasure, and a bit of a guilty one at that. If Soho’s Photographer’s Gallery was its understated, low-budget introduction to London in 2012, then O’Donnell + Tuomey’s new Student Centre at the London School of Economics is the exact opposite: a £24m statement of what might be called Total Architecture. Here we have a building that celebrates complexity and recalls something of the awkward-squad character of their former boss Jim Stirling in his ‘Red Buildings’ phase – though with far greater response to context and – one hopes – lower maintenance.
It’s not as if there was no other way of doing this building. Easier options were available. Having opted for the folded-plate approach in the facades, letting the sightline and rights of light constraints determine the physical envelope, lesser architects would have been daunted by trying to achieve the form in brick. There was, surely, nothing in the brief that called for the most obsessive level of brick detailing I have ever seen on a modern building, requiring prodigious numbers of one-off ‘specials’, some very special indeed. It is even more remarkable that this was all done on a design-and-build basis. If that facade was simplified, I can’t imagine what it must have looked like before. Not that it’s perfect – you can easily spot blemishes and inconsistencies – but in the realm of the handmade some roughness is acceptable. Differential weathering will add a further patina. Seeing the building during the winter’s heavy rains demonstrated how some parts of the facade are drenched while others remain largely dry: this will inevitably affect its appearance as time goes by, which is not necessarily a bad thing and may even be intentional.
The site is tucked away in the warren of little old streets just south of the grand open space of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, east of the broad Edwardian boulevard of Kingsway. So this is in a Dickensian fragment of old London. Assertive though the new building is when you concentrate on it, you could easily walk close by and not really notice it at all. It’s all about the glimpsed, often angled, views you get from those narrow surrounding streets. The building does, however, generate a sense of tension. Partly this is to do with brick doing things you don’t normally expect it to do and which, in the traditionalist or even Louis Kahn way of looking at things, perhaps it doesn’t want to either: tilting at odd angles, out and in: making angled rather than vertical turns; stretching into perforated panels that run over glazing rather than round it; changing texture; cladding the underside of a deep cantilever like an inverted floor.
This tension is also partly about the juxtaposition of rough and smooth, inside as well as out. Outside, the glazing emerges into the daylight in well-proportioned cladding sections finished in jatoba hardwood, nicely detailed where they turn a corner. The large, sharply angled entrance canopy – a relatively late addition to the design, itself generated by the angles of the building – is like a sliced section of this cladding, lifted on O’Donnell + Tuomey’s characteristic oxblood-red steel columns which cleverly also include little tables for glasses – a student bar, named The Three Tuns, is on this ground level. Inside, you get rough brick, rough and smooth concrete, smooth terrazzo, and shiny parti-coloured vitreous enamel panels, plus steel and timber again. This is obviously designed to be a hard-wearing palette of low-maintenance materials suitable for student life – but it’s as gamey as the inside of a butcher’s shop.
If the resolution of the facade details could be seen as the architect setting a fiendish problem and then solving it, and the interiors at least partly an exercise in flowing the outside into the inside, then another aspect of the building’s complexity certainly comes from the brief. They asked for ‘the best student centre in the world’, along with exemplary low-energy credentials. It’s designed to achieve a BREEAM Outstanding rating.
But an awful lot of different functions had to be squeezed onto this very tight site. It is a relatively shallow building, especially at its southern end. It has to step back from its neighbours behind, just as it pinches itself inwards at the front to provide spill-out space. Although it rises to six levels above ground and one deep level beneath, this feels only just enough room for everything it has been asked to contain. These functions include pub, cafe, student activity centre, a large section catering for religions (including a tiny basilica-like private prayer room in joggled brickwork), university accommodation offices, a media centre, students’ union offices, careers centre and a gym on the top two levels, opening onto a roof garden.
This gives the building a distinctly compartmentalised feel – you’re right into the hive the moment you enter, though stairs and other circulation spaces are kept as generous as possible. The largest space – a timber-lined events hall with a mezzanine, audiovisual booth and a disco ball, plus a lovely giant built-in settle – is in the basement. This volume required a serious transfer structure to achieve the necessary clear span. Both the basement hall and the equivalent ‘special place’ on top, the roof garden, are reached by tight, brutalist in-situ concrete spiral stairs as well as lifts. It’s an achievement that the architect has managed to bring daylight right down into the basement via a large opening in the ground slab – this will also be a great place from which to gaze down on the seething activity at night.
In the architects’ own words, the external form and siting of the building is ‘a spatial bowtie that intertwines circulation routes, splices visual connections between internal and external movement, and pulls pedestrian street life into and up the building’. It is, in other words, a built diagram. But onto this, being O’Donnell + Tuomey, are lovingly grafted layers of architecture. The first-floor cafe, with its big oval light reflectors designed as part of the structural columns, is a case in point. With too many buildings, the visible architecture is skin-deep and once over the threshold, anodyne standard fit-out takes over. Not here: if anything, the architecture intensifies as you move further inwards and upwards.
This, then, is a slice of vertical student city, London distilled. Its twists and turns echo the densely-packed streets outside. It is richly considered and finished. A binary building, perhaps, alternating between raw and cooked, rough and smooth, luxury and austerity, it mysteriously combines apparent razor-sharp precision with the generous tolerances demanded by craft industries. Here the hand-thrown meets the digital. It is both eccentric and deeply satisfying. Now it’s up to the students to make their judgement.
Client London School of Economics and Political Science, Estates Division
Architect O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects
Structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners/ Horganlynch
Consulting engineer, services and environmental engineer BDSP
Main contractor (D&B) Geoffrey Osborne
Security/fire/acoustics/transport and logistics/venue Arup
Catering Tricon Foodservice Consultants
Access David Bonnett Associates
Brick cladding Coleford Brick & Tile
Timber windows GEM Group
Aluminium windows Schüco Window Systems, Colorminium Group
Roofing Rheinzink UK
Vitreous enamel cladding AJ Wells + Sons
Timber flooring Woods of Wales
Terrazzo flooring WB Simpson & Sons (Terrazzo)
Sanitary ware Armitage Shanks
Bespoke lighting Specials Lighting
Balustrading Structural Stairways
Specialist steel fabrication D&R Structures
Toilet cubicles Thrislington Cubicles
Fitted furniture and timber wall linings Houston Cox Eastern
Specialist fit out Maca