In extending the Albert Sloman Library and creating the Silberrad Student Centre Patel Taylor had to mitigate the echo of their brutalist predecessors
John Constable’s 1816 painting of Wivenhoe Park outside Colchester might appear slightly less picturesque were he to have painted it today. The house and grounds of Wivenhoe, the 18th century estate of the Rebow family, experienced some far from delicate adjacencies in 1964 when architect Kenneth Capon of Architects Co-Partnership designed the uncompromising University of Essex, adding what Capon himself termed ‘something fierce’ to the park's bucolic setting.
Loathed by many at the time, the brutalist campus of low academic courtyards and residential towers was a futuristic expression of Britain’s ‘white heat of technology’. As the 20th Century Society informs us, references abound: Kenzo Tange in its courtyards, Kahn’s Philadelphia labs in the towers and even Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House in the university’s Hexagon building.
Amid this brutalist melange, architect Patel Taylor was commissioned in the early 2000s to drive forward the masterplan for a campus of over 10,000 students. Its 2006 £6m Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall, a bold stainless steel drum set into a low hill, attracted an RIBA Award as well as the ire of Prince Charles. Most recently, by the side of the campus lake, the practice chose a complementary rather than counterpointing approach to its latest additions. Completed last October, the firm’s new £26m university library extension and Silberrad Student Centre anchors the original Albert Sloman library onto the site. Deferentially designing the low, long student reception building with its shifted grid facade of Ancaster Weatherbed limestone and huge overhanging roof, Patel Taylor has also created a noble external covered social space from which the lake vistas can be better appreciated by mortar-boarded graduates.
While their whoops here might cause no offence, managing the internal acoustics for both buildings was something the design team needed to get right from the outset. The brutalist architecture might realise grand spaces, but in emulating it, the firm was working with a lot of hard surfaces that would need attenuating. Furthermore, they wanted to make the acoustic strategy an intrinsic part of the design rather than an afterthought compromising it.
It may have been the very solidity and material legacy of the building that drove the acoustic decisions Patel Taylor made – and the fact that the university’s chief librarian was old school, very much of the opinion that the library be a library in the traditional sense of the word: an academic space for quiet study. Originally, the university client had wanted a single integrated building to both extend the Sloman library and create a new student centre. But given that, in terms of acoustics, the two purposes were in opposition to each other, sound considerations in fact dictated the form of the whole design.
‘What we proposed in the end was to split the brief in two and create a dedicated student centre facing north out over the lake and simply extend the library block westwards to accommodate the additional stack requirement,’ says Patel Taylor associate Roger Meyer. He explains that the limestone panels and vertical fins of the Silberrad Centre were as much picking up on the staccato fins of the existing courtyard blocks as the concrete of the new extension was that of the original library.
‘The clear design principle of splitting the buildings had an acoustic impetus,’ he adds. ‘One’s about a quiet place with spaces to be noisy and the other’s a noisy place with spaces to be quiet.’ The final expressed aesthetic for both blocks was ultimately informed by this overarching consideration.
The desire to deliberately steer away from the modern concept of the library as a multimedia space and to treat it as a quiet space for serious study drove much of the design. Patel Taylor was staying true to Capon’s vision, keen on bare concrete expression not only as an aesthetic but as part of the thermal mass strategy in this naturally ventilated extension. With soffits exposed, full-height spaces in the stack rooms and plenty of reverberant space, Meyer says they made two assumptions: that the volume of books would mitigate some of the ambient sound and that the main space would be self-policing – students would not actually make noise when in it, obviating the need for more soundproofing.
Sound was an issue on the north side of the library, where study spaces come up against a four-storey atrium next to the ventilated glass wall. Here Patel Taylor used some ingenious detailing to not only attenuate but hide services too. The balustrade is configured as a single long desk in oak, black fabric lining hiding acoustic insulation, and a dressed detail of vertical oak slats in front. Desk spaces are delineated with a discreet brass inlay detail, and there are even heating ducts installed in it. ‘At the interface of the atrium space and the library proper, we had to develop a strategy for this area,' explains Patel Taylor associate Myshkin Clarke Hall. 'The oak slats and insulation deal with attenuation locally. The details were all about tactility – we wanted the attenuating materials to be touchable. In a self-policed acoustic space it was about trying to deal with a generated noise at source.’
The same palette of oak slats and bare concrete soffits is present in the three-storey concrete framed student centre, but with reception, breakout and student social spaces abounding here, the noise load was far more onerous. This meant making the attenuation more robust. The oak slats were used to demarcate permanent
areas, bringing qualitative parity to the main library space. However, Meyer says they had to consider future flexibility of the space: ‘It’s more cellular in nature and it was also about the idea that, with temporary enclosures, things could be ripped out and changed.’
He explains that environmental and aesthetic reasons means they ‘gave primacy’ to the concrete soffits here and were averse to any sort of acoustic foam render covering them, so instead, they went for hanging acoustic baffles directly from the soffits.
Aesthetic decisions even covered these however. Acoustic panels were specified in three shades of grey to complement the soffits and baffles were staggered along ceilings and ran to different lengths to create a variegated effect. The absorbency is reflected on the floor, where raised floor carpet tiles are used throughout. Only in the student reception main entrance and first-floor corridor, which have a more civic feel, are these replaced by granite, giving the acoustics a more ‘live’ feel.
Where acoustic requirements were particularly onerous, such as in multi-media, TV/podcast recording and campus radio studios, soundproofing was addressed locally with thick, high performance dry lined walls. Facing west to the landscape, internal secondary glazing is even installed at an angle to mitigate reflected sound. There was a higher demand for acoustically dampened mechanical ventilation here too, service runs and kit discreetly masked with a visually permeable oak slat ceiling that covered ducts while still allowing views through to those concrete soffits.
Flexibility might be built into the student centre, but even in the library, despite the emphasis on permanence, the possibility that things might change was accounted for in the design. It’s most evident in the student breakout spaces, which are so well isolated with concrete, glazing and thick dry-lined walls giving 50dB RW sound reduction that they can be used for social events, alluding to how the library might change as a space in the future. Less obviously, there are as yet unused data and IT boxes cast into the concrete floors of the library.
‘This was very much a traditional library being built in modern times but we always had to consider multi-media flexibility,’ says Clarke Hall. ‘As the university evolves it may well move from one paradigm to another.'