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Origami architecture

Hugh Pearman

This was a sneak peek rather than a launch: Dublin-based architects O’Donnell + Tuomey recently hosted the Architecture Association of Ireland at a site visit to their nearly-complete Saw Swee Hock Students’ Centre at the London School of Economics. RIBAJ was delighted to be invited along.

The competition-winning building is a virtuoso exercise in folded-plate geometrical design, architectural origami that extracts maximum potential from a very tight site. The composite concrete and steel-framed building is clad entirely in English hand-made bricks, with an extraordinary number of ‘specials’. Essentially John O’Donnell and Sheila Tuomey are playing the same game that Jean Nouvel did at his One New Change shopping centre near St. Paul’s Cathedral: to take all the sightline and rights of lights constraints as the principal generator of form. Except in brick (“London is a city of brick”, they observe) rather than glass.

Being the architects they are, it’s actually a great deal more considered than that. The LSE campus occupies a warren of little streets between the bottom end of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Aldgate. This is a building that can never be properly seen in its entirety, face-on: you only ever get glimpsed views from and between other buildings and spaces, or craning your neck upwards when you arrive at the threshold. The framed view from various directions is the thing. In the architects’ characteristically eloquent words: “The public space at the threshold of the Student Union on axis with St Clement’s Lane, creates a place of exchange; 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.”

We will publish a proper building study in due course: For now, it’s enough to know that this is a building which has to house a lot of different uses.  There’s the Students' Union reception; the advice and representation centre; sabbatical and general manager's offices; a learning space; a pub; large venue spaces; a media centre; a fitness centre, including a gym and dance studio; an interfaith prayer centre; and offices dealing with residences, accommodation, sales and marketing together with the LSE Careers Service. Over and above this programme, the client demanded a very high level of sustainability and – no pressure here - “the best student centre in the world”.

There is a bit of a quart-in-a-pint pot feel to the place, a level of complexity which makes it feel like a vertical township inside: perhaps a buzzing hive is more like it. There are some gorgeous touches such as the steel columns incorporating uplighter reflectors in the main bar, tall built-in upholstered settles, and a couple of wonderfully Brutalist raw concrete spiral stairs. There is a roof terrace. Inside, daylight gets everywhere – even in the big event space in the basement, made possible by a massive transfer structure.  And -  students of all generations rejoice – down there, installed right from the start, is a very large disco glitterball indeed.  The architects have thrown their shapes, now it’s the students’ turn.