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London College of Fashion on trend out east

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Words:
Alpa Depani

Allies and Morrison has given London College of Fashion an elegant and welcoming new home in the former Olympic Park

At the end of this year, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) will cease to have a planning function. Established in the spring before the summer 2012 London Olympic Games, the LLDC has acted as the planning authority for a vast site in east London criss-crossed by major road, rail and water infrastructure that stitches together neighbouring fragments of Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest. It is to these four ‘growth boroughs’ that the LLDC will transfer planning powers on 1 December 2024, formally ceding its responsibility for the stewardship of this new London district. 

At the time the LLDC was established, the area, built largely on formerly industrial contaminated land, comprised a clutch of extrovert sporting venues, the Westfield shopping mall and homes for the Olympians for the period of the Games distributed around a vast new green space, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Over a decade on, the park is well established with mature, well tended landscapes, while simultaneously seeming to shrink back with each passing year from a perimeter of towers and cranes. Just under 10,000 new homes were delivered across the whole site area by 2019, projected in the LLDC’s Local Plan to reach a total of 33,000 homes by 2036 (those delivered beyond 2024 will be overseen by the four boroughs).

The LLDC's planning role is winding down just in time for completion of the East Bank, the ‘cultural legacy’ of the London Olympics and a new outpost for a selection of arts and education institutions more readily associated with London zone one postcodes than E20. It comprises new buildings for BBC Music Studios, Sadler’s Wells East, University College London (UCL), V&A East and London College of Fashion (LCF), 600 new homes and a public waterfront. Dubbed ‘Olympicopolis’ in its early stages by former London mayor Boris Johnson (in characteristically bombastic vocabulary), the East Bank moniker is better suited to the sober, pared-back architecture that has been delivered. Conceived in accordance with a masterplan led by Allies and Morrison, the buildings form a terrace in muted shades. All are neatly orthogonal, at least from the outside, bar the origami form of O’Donnell+ Tuomey’s V&A building which, poised on pointed feet, looks ready to scuttle away from the family. 

Sandwiched between the River Lea to the south and Carpenters Road to the north, the new buildings trace a diagonal line from Sadler’s Wells at the south-east tip to the residential towers at the north-west. The London College of Fashion, designed by Allies and Morrison, sits almost in the middle of this terrace; at 17 storeys it is a few floors lower than the residential blocks but it rises well above its immediate neighbours. 

 

Covered colonnades connect the building to the public realm. Credit: Simon Menges
Public foyer leading to the library. Curved staircases that span the atrium are conceived as a ‘vertical catwalk’. Credit: Simon Menges

The terrace has been designed to negotiate a significant level change. At lower river level it is entirely pedestrianised with a series of graded routes and stairs that rise to a second pedestrian route linking the principal entrances of LCF, the BBC and Sadler’s Wells. The upper road level is primarily for servicing and vehicles. This means the buildings face into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a hopeful invitation to a new audience. The park attracts around 8 million visitors a year but realistically building visitors are more likely to arrive from the railway station to the north. 

Still, the LCF entrance takes public appeal seriously. It is framed at the upper walkway by rectangular concrete columns that rise three floors, marking the publicly accessible layers of the building. Along the width of this frontage steps spill down to the lower walkway by the water, the deep treads incorporating planting troughs and timber seating. It is a generous gesture, an inhabitable threshold, but climbing the steps is something of a commitment. A more manageable stair is tucked to the side. Between the businesslike feel of these and the effort of the other, it is hard to imagine a person motivated by curiosity alone exploring those public floors, despite the thoughtful intention. 
Looking up from river level, the organising principles of the building become visible. It is an extruded square, a ‘vertical campus’ bringing previously dispersed departments of the school, (from journalism, jewellery and footwear to fashion illustration and marketing) together in one place for the first time. Punched through the block is a structural and circulation core which above the public level is wrapped all around by workspaces of varying depth, except for a moment on the north-west corner where a glimmering edge of the core is left exposed. 

  • To reduce the  building’s carbon  footprint, GGBS  replaces up to 50%  of the cement in the  fair-faced concrete.
    To reduce the building’s carbon footprint, GGBS replaces up to 50% of the cement in the fair-faced concrete. Credit: Simon Menges
  • Design studios for visual merchandising and communication.
    Design studios for visual merchandising and communication. Credit: Simon Menges
  • A regular column grid and lightweight partitions are intended to enhance future adaptability.
    A regular column grid and lightweight partitions are intended to enhance future adaptability. Credit: Simon Menges
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Stepping into the main foyer a softly spiralling stair springs free from the orthogonal plan, offering expansive views within and without as it dances up the concrete core to the third-floor library. From here the core is alternately perforate and enclosed, warmed by maple timber framed windows, panels, shelves and balustrades. At every floor then there is a layering of views up, across and below. The school’s teaching programmes start to become visible; glimpses of dressmakers’ dummies, racks of fabric samples here, a neat array of sewing machines there. 

The vibe is not art school flamboyant but quietly industrious – there is a concentrated hum about the place, a sense of containment. This is perhaps rooted in LCF’s origins in City guilds and trade schools; it has always kept links to the textile and clothing industries. Uniting the school’s 5,000 students in a purpose-built home is intended to foster collaboration and cross-fertilisation across programmes in a way that was impossible when dispersed across six city sites. Permeable internal architecture supports this intention – intriguing workspaces unfold in every direction. On the other hand, this tidy grouping subtracts something in terms of cross-fertilisation with the city itself; LCF’s Lime Grove site was long tied to the fabric and haberdashery stalls of Shepherds Bush market; the Oxford Street location was in a hub for fashion retail. 

This new building exceeds the scale of the school’s previous sites, of course, but is addressing a different scale too, global rather than local, a pivot that will surely raise its profile and attract greater numbers of students. It is a reminder that whatever LCF’s origins, it now belongs firmly within the contemporary higher education economic model, wherein universities must advertise their wares in a competitive global market in order to maintain a steady student intake and stay afloat.

 

The muted palette comprises just three robust materials: structural concrete, tactile maple screens and furniture, and black metal enclosures for services. Credit: Simon Menges
Reflecting LCF’s role as a place of production, the architect took inspiration from 19th century mills: ‘lofty, solid, well-lit and adaptable’. Credit: Simon Menges

The new LCF home is a good building. The spaces within, whether for workshops, seminars, or circulation, all feel generous and there are ample, less defined spaces, that allow for all three, a spaciousness that lends itself to flexibility over time. Throughout there are invitations to linger, such as the timber benches that line outward-facing windows on all floors. High levels of daylight, natural ventilation and carefully designed acoustics provide a warmth and comfort not immediately associated with so much exposed concrete. It would be a nice place to study. 
At a time when university investment is declining at an alarming rate, it is encouraging to see so much time and care lavished here (the project has been 10 years in the making). But industrial production across the city is also rapidly decreasing, and by positioning the school on a global stage those ties to the city itself and the ecosystems that grow out of physical production become weakened. Expansive windows set in chamfered frames provide views out to the capital, but it feels distant, a backdrop, ‘over there’ while the school is ‘in here’. It is hard not to wonder if gathering productive spaces into the somewhat sterile environs of post-Olympic Stratford has extracted something irreplaceable from the rest of London. 

Alpa Depani is an architect and head of strategic planning and design for the London Borough of Waltham Forest 

  • Upper floor garment studio.
    Upper floor garment studio. Credit: Simon Menges
  • Top floor sewing workshop.
    Top floor sewing workshop. Credit: Simon Menges
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IN NUMBERS

Total contract cost  £216m
GIA 38,144 m2
Predicted on-site renewable energy generation 83 MWh
kgCO2-eq/m² Whole-life carbon (modules A1-A5) LETI scope 827

Credits

Client London Legacy Development Corporation (LDDC) and University of the Arts London (UAL)
Architect Allies and Morrison
Construction manager Mace
Structure, services, lighting, acoustics, access, sustainability and fire engineer Buro Happold
Landscape architect LDA Design
Cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald

 

 

Suppliers

Frame Expanded
MEP MJL
Fit-out Portview
Precast facade Techcrete
Lifts Schindler
External signage Mersons
Windows and curtain walling Hansen, Skonto

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