Close analysis of the central London site helped Grafton Architects create legibility in the structural twists of its multistorey campus building for the LSE
Fun fact: Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara must have nailed the ‘belt drop’ judo move while studying. It might seem surprising that this tumbled out of a chat about their £90 million Marshall Building for the London School of Economics but it’s par for the course when talking to Grafton that architectural discourse will, at any moment, range from this to a detail’s material specificity, to broader points of philosophy and experience.
The revelation comes about as Farrell gives her view of the design process, speaking of the site’s ‘extraordinary’ nature, its history, the client and team; how everyone ‘was seeking the intangible aspects of the brief … trying to capture a story that’s not yet been told.’ It seems they ran with the cut-and-thrust the process demanded in the time that they worked on it. ‘It felt like judo, when you roll with punches, absorbing force to transfer that energy into the making of the building,’ says Farrell.
As she says it, Bruce Lee’s famous quote ‘be water, my friend’ comes to mind. But simple things like water are clearly part of Grafton’s thinking, even with an 18,000m² building for a world-class university, facing London’s largest square, in the heart of this global city. Because while, for example, the intention might just have been to establish a flow of students to its ground-level Great Hall from three entrances on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Portsmouth Street and Portugal Street, from where LSE’s tight campus fans out, their approach works not just by connecting directly to the streets around. A 700mm fall across the site absorbed by an imperceptibly sloping ground floor, by default makes it effortlessly accessible for all. Place a mishit ball from Lincoln’s Inn Fields’ tennis courts on the Marshall Centre’s north-east corner ‘and it will gently roll south towards the river’, notes Farrell. ‘The building’s mix of uses is a microcosm of this city and we felt it important for students to be subliminally aware of their position, relative to the Thames.’
You imagine it must have been difficult for Grafton to hold onto the aesthetic reins here, so weighty are its psycho-geographic influences. The arched windows of Sir John Soane’s Museum scrutinising from across the 17th-century square; Lincoln’s Inn, still in session to the east; Charles Barry’s hard, classical carapace sheathing the viscera of the Royal College of Surgeons next door; and LSE’s meandering campus of buildings to the outh – not least with O’Donnell + Tuomey’s 2014 Saw Swee Hock Centre. But to varying degrees, they will all make their presence felt in the nine-storey concrete structure, itself complexly housing various functions piled densely, one upon the other.
While this innate complexity may have seemed inevitable, the manner of its expression is the result of the firm ‘living and breathing the building’ for years. LSE’s original brief had asked for an on-campus sports facility, new mid-sized lecture halls, open-plan and dedicated student study space, numerous academic and administrative offices as well as economist and major donor Paul Marshall’s Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship.
Keen to democratise space beyond the brief’s remit, Grafton had been struck by nearby Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, whose open, groined undercroft ushers you, via stone staircases, to the chapel above. ‘They were like stairs to another world, and we thought of it as a fantastic way to think about the project,’ recalls McNamara. So they did the same; hoicking the programme up off ground to create their generous, civic, relaxed – if unstipulated – Great Hall with free flow within from three sides.
Of course, creating an open undercroft added to an already complex structural arrangement but Grafton was considering programme, load and light simultaneously. And as one does to solve complex problems, you break it down. First was to consider the orders of layering; the large sports hall nestled in the basement and above the open ground floor, two levels of lecture spaces; above that, six further floors of study and office space; at the top, the Marshall Institute. In section and elevation, with its piano nobile, this allowed the practice to emulate the palazzo nature of the adjacent Barry building. Meanwhile, as structural complexity reduced on ascending, the density of the building was increasing.
This meant Grafton faced the dual challenge of creating a seven-storey formal facade to the north while drawing in light and air from the south to meet demands for it from cellular offices.
‘We didn’t want an axis but to cut into the form and create a diagonal relationship – and a place to loiter – whose geometry stems from the streets and context,’ McNamara explains. Hence the idea of the 20m structural trees; great concrete ‘trunks’ rising at 15.2m centres astride the sports hall up past the Great Hall at ground, where ‘branches’ then twist at 45 degrees to generate the 10.8m grid of the lecture hall floors and similarly twist again to form the 7.6m grid ‘stems’ of the academic offices and admin floors. Despite engineer AKT II’s efforts to minimise redundancy and mass, rising up to the lecture hall levels via two concrete spiral stairs, Grafton’s love affair with the material is palpable – holes punched through slabs to allow its ‘trees’ to rise and support upper levels and give views down to ground. With one column growing up towards a far Soane-like rooflight, the overall effect is arboreal, as if passing through a wood. Students, you feel, sense this gentle drama. On the day I visit, they are crammed beneath the canopy in the student commons at the centre of the centre of the lecture floors, the place buzzing with quiet industry.
Creating an open undercroft added to an already complex structural arrangement
Drama is muted in a less satisfactory way at the upper levels, where Grafton was forced to deal with cellular repetition of offices either side of central corridors, creating staggered height, splayed arms that reach out to the campus to the south of. A central, concrete-lined internal courtyard space with connecting stair forms a ceremonial confluence for them all, around which is punched glazing to meeting rooms and formal study areas; two cores doing services and structural grunt work to east and west. Central atrium space excepted, that lovely flow of space experienced at lower levels feels very channelled here. But the sense of drama at urban scale returns at the top floor Marshall Institute with its landscaped roof terrace, where lofty city views might persuade potential donors to dig deep.
Those big internal twists don’t shirk from making themselves evident on the exterior, with Grafton using them to create a sophisticated composition of the north facade, fronting Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Shifts are referenced as you enter off-axis in the cast stone seats between crafted lighting columns and in the triangular cut-outs of the Portland stone-faced ground and piano nobile. Above it, the central ‘office’ arm insinuates itself on the formal facade, past a crisply detailed and jointed veil of concrete fins that run along its 55m length.
The piano nobile, which runs round to the site to the south, works hard to help articulate entrance and internal volumes. But there’s no escaping the unrelenting repetitive nature of the upper office arms. The streets’ tight grain, foreshortening these elevations, has been put to the architects’ advantage, breaking down massing; but you can’t help contrasting this ‘working’ side of the building against the nuanced complexity of the north elevation. Granted, Grafton achieves what was required of it – to deliver light deep into the section – but it was done by relying on cleverly crafted, snatched views from LSE’s narrow streets to pull off its massing sleight-of-hand.
Arguably, this last point proves how closely Farrell and McNamara have analysed the site to eke advantage from perceived weakness. Those playing sports in what would have been a windowless basement may appreciate this as they look up past the cut-out beyond the bike store to glimpse the sky above Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here at LSE, you sense Grafton wrestled very hard with a demanding programme and physical constrictions to make their building work. ‘Yvonne and I did Judo in college,’ McNamara will tell me. ‘It’s where we learned how to fall.’ And to win.
Total building cost £90m
Gross internal floor area 18,000m²
Per m² £5,000
Academic offices 176
Architect Grafton Architects
Structural and civil engineering AKT II
Mechanical, electrical and public health Chapman BDSP
Fire safety engineering Chapman BDSP
Acoustic engineer Applied Acoustic Design
Facade engineer Billings Design Associates
Working/learning environment Burwell Deakins Architects
Theatre and performance Sound Space Vision
Access and inclusion Buro Happold