Looking for the wow factor

Universities want eye-catching iconic buildings that capture the spirit of academic endeavour, involve the community and aid recruitment. Esther Oxford surveys the results, from glass walls to grass roofs

April 3, 2008

Some architects have compared Britain's university buildings to pubs - places that attract people who are willing to try out different kinds of conversations. Others see campuses as more akin to churches - housing a nurturing mission and serving as landmarks that catch the eye.

But most university leaders who are given the opportunity to build take a more pragmatic view: they see bold modernist structures as a way to tell scholars, potential students and the public at large that they are accessible havens of cutting-edge intellectual endeavour and innovation.

"If you don't have a naturally beautiful city like Cambridge, you have to try harder to attract students through modernity and a cooler campus," says Tony McGuirk, chairman of Building Design Partnership. His firm designed the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, the E-Innovation Centre at the University of Wolverhampton, and buildings at the universities of Napier, East London and Sunderland.

Paul Baxter, a partner at Nicholas Hare Architects, a recent winner of two Royal Institute of British Architects awards, agrees. "If I were a 17-year-old going to look at a university and they had a bright shiny building, it might make a difference," he says.

In fact, the power of buildings to help "landmark" a university has become so clear that a crop of architecturally interesting new buildings has sprung up across British campuses. And some of them are winning national recognition.

But the construction boom comes at a price: in 2001, just £1 billion of university money was put into capital expenditure for buildings, according to an annual report on estates management published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. By 2006, this had nearly doubled to £1.9 billion.

McGuirk's firm conceived the Saltire Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, for which it won a coveted RIBA award in 2006. And last year, Baxter's firm's received RIBA awards for the Richard Doll Building at the University of Oxford and the Student Services Centre at the University of Southampton.

Among others that have been honoured with RIBA awards are Queen Mary, University of London - which won two awards in 2006, for the Blizard Building and the Lock-keeper's Cottage Graduate Centre; Imperial College London for its Faculty Building (1999); University College London for the School of Slavonic and East European Studies building (2006); the University of Gloucestershire for the Oxstalls campus (2003); and Napier University for the Jack Kilby Computer Centre (2003), to name a few.

These award-winning buildings have several features in common. They tend to offer a flexible use of space (inasmuch as the walls of the rooms inside the buildings can be moved easily to reconfigure the space) and they are environmentally friendly in their use of heating, insulation and in their energy output.

Their adaptability should guarantee them a long useful life. "University estates departments are more astute in how they view the long term. They want buildings to work for 50 years - to be adapted for need - rather than being inflexible," Baxter says. "It is about the long-term strategy of the campus, not about a single building."

But today's university buildings are not just about longevity and functionality, they are designed to embrace concepts such as transparency, accessibility and cross-fertilisation. "The university experience is more than lecture rooms," Baxter says. "It's about how the campus as a whole holds together. The building needs to be conducive to studying, but also to socialising and sharing ideas between disciplines."

McGuirk agrees. "Being inclusive is important. We try to make our university buildings feel open and welcoming. The end result is that universities play a role in regenerating an area. Architecture becomes knowledge-giving," he says.

The process of creating an iconic university building or a new campus can be gruelling. Universities are keen to involve students, staff and the local community in the consultation process. They come up with a list of must-haves. It is the architects' job to turn these wish lists into workable realities.

"The trick is to balance the client's ideas with ours," says Stephen Blower, assistant director of Dyer Associates, the architectural practice behind the recently opened Queen Margaret University campus outside Edinburgh. "There can be conflict, particularly with the academics, until they realise you're on their side.

"The conversations tend to start off with a 'where-will-my-desk-go' way of thinking. It's our job to educate them to see the building as a whole. Some turn out to be visionaries, others are more set in their ways (they tend to arrive with a list of complaints). You can go into a meeting with a strong idea and come out with nothing."

McGuirk has had similar experiences. "We've found that the students are always ready to move away from outdated concepts such as 'computer rooms' and 'study rooms'," he says. "But academics tend to hold on to the notion of the cellular pod - which in the real world we've already given up because it limits potential. They don't like the idea of open access and sharing offices."

Baxter says he gave up trying to change the mindset of some academics at Oxford. "We tried very hard. We took them round different open-plan offices. But they couldn't change their expectations or work methods. As a result, we've designed our buildings so that they can become open plan should the need arise. The wiring is modular, so walls can be taken away over the course of a summer."

Finding a site and gaining planning permission for a new building are major challenges. An institution may be lucky enough to have existing buildings that it can demolish. Failing that, brownfield sites are a good bet. Local authorities tend to be better disposed to awarding planning permission to universities willing to redevelop former industrial sites.

But site and planning constraints aside, one of the biggest challenges for architects employed by British universities is dissuading their clients from demanding "wacky" buildings when they really want something iconic. "There is a fine line between iconic and vulgar," says Baxter. "It's not about focusing on a single gem in the corner. It's about creating a gateway - and making sure the university has a coherent and attractive way forward for the campus as a whole."

Or as McGuirk says: "We can't have all buildings aspiring to iconic status. We need tempo and pace - otherwise we'll end up with architectural Prozac."

The University of Essex is putting up a "landmark" building on the waterfront in Ipswich as part of its University Campus Suffolk development. "I got a briefing that included a list of words such as 'bold' 'landmark', 'sustainable', 'implementable' and 'student facing'," says Peter Williams, director of RMJM, the international architectural firm that designed the development.

The building - due to open in September 2008 - has a surreal quality, perched as it is on the edge of the water: a chequerboard exterior that curves and supports small windows and a grass roof. "Given that the campus is fairly new, the building needs to make a statement in order to get student numbers in and guarantee the university some success," Williams explains.

"It has a sedum roof that looks like a hairy fringe, which people either love or hate. It provides a good contrast to the shiny steel. It also takes into account changes in learning methodology: there are areas of informal learning where partitions can be taken down - so that learning spaces can be flexible. And if the students want to be in the building until midnight, it allows them to do this by shutting off half of the building but keeping the other half alive."

Neil Jordan, estates manager for the Ipswich campus at Essex, says the development has gone down well. "Ninety-nine per cent of the local community seem to enjoy the new building," he explains.

The views of the wider community about any proposed developments are important to universities. At the new Queen Margaret campus, vice-principal Rosemary Marshall valued the principles of "inclusion" and "accessibility" so highly that she instructed the architects to go back to the drawing board when it became clear that neighbours of the university weren't happy with the exclusive look of the proposed campus.

"Queen Margaret is an historically female university; 80 per cent of our students are women and we see ourselves as approachable and accessible. We decided to design our academics building (to look) like the hull of a stately ship.

"When we showed our masterplan to the community, they liked the ship but we were asked to orient certain buildings in a slightly different way. They also wanted the sports facilities, drama department and nursery to be closer to the entrance road to the campus so they would be much easier to access.

"So far, it has cost £105 million. We are very proud of what we've created. It's the first full campus to be built in Scotland for 30 years," Marshall says.

Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, is quite upfront about the importance of "sex appeal" for his new campus. "From the year 2011, the number of 18 to 25-year-olds will decrease by 1 per cent per annum. Our current student population is ,000, so that means we'll lose 2,700 students (each worth £8,000). Combine that with the removal of the cap on student fees in 2010 and the question arises: how best to attract students who can pay the highest figure?

"When I first got this job, the university was £5 million in deficit. I told the university that I want to get into a virtuous circle. I wanted to create landmark buildings that would then attract good-quality staff, who in turn would build excellent curriculum, which would then attract better students."

Fidler's strategy appears to have worked. The university has grown by 50 per cent in the past five years, both in terms of students and income. Last year, it made £13 million on a £165 million turnover. "Students want value for money in terms of academic provision and good buildings," Fidler says, "and we've given it to them. We'll have a whole new sports facility, including a 25m pool and four basketball courts by 2010. And a landmark campus to be proud of."

Over at the University of Teesside, vice-chancellor Graham Henderson is continuing the message of inclusion and accessibility through the design of new buildings. He says the mission statement for the ever-evolving Teesside is "to raise aspirations, encourage our students to pursue excellence and contribute to the local community".

To a large degree he has succeeded. Under his leadership, the university has expanded from 8,000 students in 1992 to 23,000 in 2008. The surplus of about £6 million a year is now paying for the new buildings.

Part of Henderson's plan stems from a determination to "take our university to the people rather than waiting for the people to come to us". This has meant putting university centres inside five further education colleges in surrounding areas - Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Redcar - to act as magnets to people who wouldn't otherwise think of going to university.

Darlington, in particular, is known as a "cold spot" for higher education, says Henderson. The new building in Darlington is transparent, filled with light, curvy and welcoming. "So far, we've already seen an increase of 300 students just in the past year. We expect a further 300 next year and 1,000 more students in a year or two," Henderson says.

This missionary zeal takes us back to the notion of academia as being akin to religion. Yes, universities can offer knowledge, elevated values and a source of inspiration to both the mind and soul. But they need a beautiful building to help pull in the people.

"It's more about creating beauty and modernity than thinking 'this has to make a grand visual statement'," says Baxter. "But it's also true that there is a greater need for a good image than ever before. It's down to the way the world is."




Saltire Centre

Glasgow Caledonian University

Building Design Partnership

Blizard Building

Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, Queen Mary, University of London

Alsop Architects


Richard Doll Building Oxford University

Nicholas Hare Architects

Student Services Centre

George Thomas Building, University of Southampton

Nicholas Hare Architects




Glasgow School of Art

by Charles Rennie Mackintosh


Senate House,

University of London by Charles Holden


University of Leicester

Engineering Building (listed but under threat) by James Stirling and James Gowan


University of Sussex campus by Sir Basil Spence


University of Warwick campus by Eugene Rosenberg.

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