Simon Henley on the 15-year masterplan for Roehampton University
Henley Halebrown Rorrison has drawn up a 2025 masterplan for Roehampton University’s expansion. Simon Henley explains how this was informed by references as diverse as a cemetery and a lamp-post.
Why did Roehampton commission a new masterplan?
Simon Henley: Roehampton only became a university in its own right in 2004. After three new buildings it decided to create a plan with more gravitas and commissioned the Roehampton 2025 masterplan. This includes a library, conference hotel, sports facilities, housing and The Exchange, which combines a restaurant and theatre/graduation hall. It’s about it growing into an institution in the nicest possible way and exploring what a university should feel like.
What were the challenges on the site?
SH: This wasn’t just about building new but about making sense of what was existing. The colleges that make up the university are a legacy of the 18th century country houses on the site that were hijacked as colleges and amalgamated into a university: Froebel’s Grove House (designed by James Wyatt in 1792), Digby Stuart, Southlands and (outside this masterplan) Whitelands College. A historic garden wall between Digby and Grove House acted as a barrier. A number of smaller buildings obstruct natural thoroughfares and blight potentially strong public spaces that would make the university campus both easier to understand and navigate.
What informed your approach?
SH: There was an [existing] language to do with the heritage of the estates and their parkland and precincts, and our masterplan makes the heritage of that clearer. We looked at the work of Plecnik creating courtyards and precincts at Prague Castle and at how the Stockholm Cemetery and the Louisiana Museum in Denmark by Asplund & Lewerentz were built in woodland. A lot of recent university buildings look like they are commercial buildings – at their worst, business parks. We’re arguing for a more timeless way of building that’s more consistent with the better buildings on the site, which are generally masonry with regularly spaced punched openings. We’re trying to create gravitas and permanence.
A Grove House
B Digby Stuart
A Student union belvedere
B Howard and Jubilee arcade
C Digby Stuart chapel cloister
E Froebel finger
A Undergraduate housing
B Montifiore renovation
C Sports facilities
D Conferencing hotel/student housing
E The Courts
F Brick Court at Digby Stuart
G The Exchange
H The library
I Energy Centre
J Postgraduate housing
What is your strategy for future development?
SH: We propose the construction of the Exchange building in the Digby Stuart grounds in a position not unlike the relationship of Grove House to its lake and garden. Orientated at 45 degrees to the Digby Stuart lake is a new library on an axis with the main entrance. Housing is on the south and north edge. The other crucial thing was to forge physical links between the concentrations of activity. We’re redefining a route north, once known as Father Ryan’s Walk, and bringing it through the wall in an arcade up to Grove House. Second, we’re going to extend a historic footpath – the Froebel finger – that runs around the back of the lake the length of the site as a quick way of moving around the university.
Like Plecnik, we envisage a series of interventions that unlock the university fabric and make it make sense. This includes a cloister – Brick Court – at Digby Hall and a belvedere on the corner of Grove House as a prospect to view the garden and a landmark to move towards and through. Like a folly in the landscape, it orientates you and opens up vistas. There will also be a tall lamp-post in the woods on the footpath, like the one in CS Lewis’s Narnia, which will create a landmark visible from the belvedere beyond the lake and trees.
What will be implemented first?
SH: The £750,000 Brick Court, which we are just going out to tender on. This is at Digby Stuart on the site the masterplan earmarked as a cloister. The university is keeping a café/library overflow building and the court will be formed by this, the chapel, the retail and the historic garden wall to Grove House. The floor and walls will be entirely brick, with seating opposite the café doors and localised steps and areas of patterns. It’s a modest project but important in giving the public realm at the university more importance.
We may have to wait for the rest. Not only are we in the age of austerity but there’s the prospect of privatising the university system with tuition fees. But there’s enough good buildings and great landscape to make a fantastic campus.