How to deal with the legacy of 1960s university buildings

Friday 29 November 2013

A high proportion of the UK’s many 1960s university buildings can be effectively updated as part of a sustainable approach that builds on their qualities of character, good floor-to-ceiling heights and natural light. But some are so riddled with deep-seated problems that they must make way for new, low-energy buildings that make the most of the public realm and have a lifespan of 100 years or more.

Those were some of the key points to emerge from a breakfast talk at the NLA this morning run in conjunction with Nicholas Hare Architects.

LSE director of estates Julian Robinson said that until the last 10 years his institution in Aldwych had had a ‘very unremarkable estate’. But since a revised estates strategy in 2010 the LSE has spent over £200m, with £400m more to come as an investment over the next 10 years. Part of that new generation of the estate is the subject of a competition won by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) to design its new £90m Global Centre for Social Sciences (GCSS), which includes a new public square in the heart of the campus. ‘We brief that buildings must have a 100 year life’, said Robinson. ‘We want them to be part of LSE’s DNA’. In a sense, though, the scheme adopts a ‘back to basics approach’ in terms of its long, thin blocks and short spans. This principle draws on the best ever post occupation evaluation LSE ever had - a conversion of an existing building where openable windows, controllable ventilation and lots of light were its most commended elements.

Nicholas Hare Architects Partner Carol Lelliott said that with 80 per cent of carbon emissions coming from buildings it was ‘too big a problem to new-build out of’. This was even the case with schemes such as The Arup Building at the University of Cambridge, designed in 1971 by Sir Philip Dowson but described by Pevsner as ‘a drama of violence’. Although a ‘heroic and iconic structure’, it was not much loved, even from day one, and is one of the university’s worst energy performers. But it does have major assets such as an ‘exquisite’ museum in the podium and three levels of ‘potentially terrific flexible space’ and decent ceiling heights. So, with the tenant committed to sustainable values, the architect has provided a new entrance to reconnect the podium, a green ‘laboratory’ and PVs on the roof, along with an emphasis on passive design solutions. ‘We’ve learnt that it is important to spend time thinking about the building and its assets and what it can do well – rather than impose, to go with the flow’, Lelliott said. Reinvention of such schemes is important, she added - there is a vast quantity of 60s university buildings but only 0.18% are listed, ‘so they are not as protected as we think’.

During discussion, DOCOMOMO-UK’s past chair James Dunnett said that it was interesting to note that the Rogers LSE building added public realm, since if the Modern Movement had been about anything, it was about that. He said that it was also gratifying that students were fond of these 60s buildings, suggesting that the tide in perception terms may be turning. London Met University head of estates development William Hunt said that its interventions were at the other end of the scale to that of LSE, but was making slow but sure changes as its student numbers alter, such as a new open access PC area and student lounge. It is also looking to extend the lifespan of its Tower Building on Holloway Road.

The importance of university estates is clearly important, emphasised by Architecture PLB’s Rupert Cook citing of new research which says that one in three students rejects the universities they shortlist after visiting their campuses. The LSE, though was not concerned about distance learning projects, believing that people want to work with their peers and choosing instead to focus on London rather than open campuses abroad and risk diluting the brand. ‘It’s in London because that’s where it’s all happening’, he said.

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