Universities set stall out to integrate more into the city fabric

Thursday 26 May 2016

Image: London Business School, Sheppard Robson

Higher education estates across London are ‘sweating their assets’ and integrating more with their surrounding communities in a bid to attract the best staff and students in an increasingly competitive global market.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from Universities: closed estates or integrated campuses? - a half day conference held at NLA with a keynote by LSE’s director of estates Julian Robinson.

Situated midway between commerce (The City) and the state (government) the university builds for future generations as well as current ones, said Robinson, with an ongoing programme of works. This includes a piece of ‘seminal university architecture’ and ‘new front door to the campus’ at 44 Lincoln’s Inn Fields by competition-winner Grafton Architects, with which it intends to remain a viable draw for talent and the public.  But London’s universities need help in a globally competitive market place, he said, so politicians, planners and the new mayor of London must be reminded that ‘we are an integral part of London and a key part of its current and indeed future success story’.

University estates are no longer a ‘designer accessory’ but key components of their brands, despite the academic office being the last bastion of cellular space, said Robinson. But LSE’s strategy is not just about buildings but the pubic space around them and, increasingly importantly, the spaces inside. The LSE is getting a name as an intelligent client, with a ‘perfected’ competition process that is followed by its peers, said Robinson. ‘Essentially we do know the difference between value and price’, he said. ‘And we need to value our estate to remain a world class university.’ The affordability for housing for students is a problem, said Robinson, but he was ‘encouraged’ by the London Plan’s emphasis on university-led housing.

Architecture PLB associate Andrew Fifield explored the relationship between town and gown, referencing some work the practice is doing at Portsmouth University, and claiming that, far from the solitary exercise of centuries ago, today’s higher education estates are more about providing a territory for students that is theirs, with spaces for unprogrammed social learning taking precedence. ‘Universities are becoming increasingly more relevant in the city in terms of the economy, social life and environmental life’ he said. ‘You can’t do a masterplan and just talk to the university. The city is a mash up.’ Masterplans need to have a ‘soft systems approach’, Fifield added, with the more useful ones being a process rather than a blueprint.

Wellbeing is another important factor for universities – as with other building types – to consider, said Atkins design director Philip Watson, especially given the £5.8bn that universities contribute to the UK’s GDP every year. We shape buildings and buildings shape us, said Watson, and with mental health issues costing a minimum of £26bn a year there is a ‘hugely compelling argument for putting wellbeing at the heart of design’. This is reinforced by the fact that 33% of students reject an institution based on the facilities they observed and 80% said the quality of the estate influenced their decision on where to study.

While Centre for London research manager Kat Hanna emphasised the importance of innovation districts and students’ desires to be in lively places rather than soulless campuses, HawkinsBrown partner Oliver Milton showed how both Here East and Innovation Central in Cardiff were seeking to create more collaboration spaces and meeting places where academia and commerce can mix. ‘Both understand that they need to build a community rather than just a building’, he said.

The conference also head from case studies including UCL’s Stratford and Bloomsbury proposals, its director of estates Andrew Grainger stressing the need for good quality, flexible, adaptable spaces to end ‘a huge legacy in underinvestment in our estate’. UCL has acquired 11 acres on the Olympic Park and is procuring design teams for new facilities that will include a focus on smart cities and built environment within the to-be-rebranded Olympicopolis project. ‘we want to be integrated into the fabric of the city’, he said. London College of Communications’ regeneration and cultural partnerships manager Gill Henderson detailed LCC’s plans for Elephant and Castle, including a new screen school by Allies and Morrison, the first three floors of which will be open to the public using the model of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank.

Sheppard Robson’s Lee Bennett took the audience through the practice’s long-burn project for the London Business School, which includes a new ‘cat’s cradle’ entrance into a reworked Marylebone Town Hall. ‘We think we’ve made a progressive move and have an integrated, progressive, integrated campus. And before Jestico + Whiles’ associate director Julian Dickens’ presentation on whole life cycle costing, Sergison Bates Architects’ senior partner showed how the Hult International Business School transformed disparate buildings on a former brewery site in Aldgate with a unifying, beautiful staircase that became ‘a set of rooms’ and exemplified a pervasive ‘multi-space concept’ across many higher education buildings.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ 

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