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Thursday24 July 2014

City of Westminster College by Schmidt Hammer Lassen

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City of Westminster College, the Learning & Skills Council’s last grand vision, leaves a dramatic monument to a bygone age.

Educational buildings, more than any other type, are a product of their time. As a direct representation of the prevailing political ideology, and its associated funding mechanisms, they can provide a powerful lens through which to understand the complexion of the society that created them. From the robust, paternalist Gothic of the first Victorian board schools to the optimistic fresh air and light of the post-war comprehensives, the spirit of the age is directly embodied in the architectural form given to the incubators of its children.

More recently, the creeping influence of the private sector has been reflected in the cheerily coloured flimsiness of many Building Schools for the Future (BSF) schools, and the City’s excesses manifested in the corporate philanthropic gloss of hedge-fund sponsored academies. But no more. As education secretary Michael Gove announces a future of flat-pack pop-up classrooms and free school champion Toby Young proselytises the potentials of teaching in the local chippy, soon any architect-designed school will stand as a relic of the past – a shameful symbol of the imagined age of architects “creaming off cash”.

The spirit of this government may well be reflected in the fact that its schools are makeshift, temporary, or not even there at all. How strange, then, that as the coalition gleefully beckons in its age of austerity, the £70 million City of Westminster College has just been unveiled.

Looming over Paddington Green in west London, the college is, of course, already a remnant of another bygone era, in this case that of the Learning & Skills Council (LSC), from a time when aspiration was to be manifest in monumental form, no matter what the available means. Established in 2001, the LSC was charged with renovating and rebuilding the UK’s ailing stock of further education colleges.

It quickly grew to become the biggest of the quangos created under New Labour, swelling to command an £11.6 billion budget by 2008-9 – at which point it was promptly axed. It had acted as an energetic booster of grand visions, gaily telling colleges to “bid now and bid big” for a “once in a lifetime opportunity”. But its enthusiasm for landmark buildings didn’t quite match its capacity to deliver. Through catastrophic mismanagement, it promised almost £3 billion more for projects than it could afford, leaving many colleges semi-demolished, housed in temporary accommodation and on the brink of insolvency.

City of Westminster College

Source: Adam Mørk

City of Westminster College

As Phil Willis, chairman of the investigating committee, said in 2009: “The information coming through was that college after college was not just being rebuilt, but that we were getting iconic buildings up and down the country. Someone needed to tell the emperor that the clothes weren’t there.”

Except, perhaps, in Paddington, where one very flashy new outfit is now gleaming in the sunlight for all to see. At a total project cost of £105 million, £86 million of which was stumped up by the LSC, the City of Westminster College represents the highest value single site development in the body’s history. It is the one that got away.

“We were very lucky with our timing,” says Jim Dorsett, project architect from the building’s Danish creator, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), as we stand on the Brazilian slate floor at the bottom of the college’s lofty central atrium. Above us, swooping planes of immaculately finished concrete rise up seven storeys to an ETFE bubble; it feels more like being in a company headquarters than a technical college. It is all a far cry from what stood on the site before, a crumbling collection of three early 1960s blocks, with broken windows and concrete cladding panels retained with chicken wire.

The college had initially thought about a refurbishment, adding a rain-screen over the top of the existing structure, but, as with so many other colleges whose fate was not to be quite so rosy, the LSC persuaded it to “think big”. The new building, at 24,000sq m, thus provides double the floor area of the former blocks, with accommodation for teaching everything from bricklaying to photography, dance to motor vehicle repair, pooling facilities previously spread across three separate sites into one glistening vessel.

The building fills its site with a single 100m-long, 50m-wide hulk, articulated as seven planes that progressively slide across each other towards the south, variously modulated and cut away to provide a series of terraces. The northern elevation therefore steps back, to respect the neighbouring council flats’ rights of light, while the southern elevation cantilevers forward, providing solar shading and reaching to the limit of the site’s legal boundary at its upper level. With its cantilevered bow, and terraced stern, it has an inescapable formal resemblance to a cruise ship, a vast behemoth of education, broken free from the Regent’s Canal and steaming through Paddington’s fractured grain towards the Westway.

City of Westminster College section

SECTION

The horizontal rhythm of white reconstituted stone bands – which includes Spanish dolomite aggregate for extra sparkle – is broken up by the articulation of several specific programmatic areas. The ground-floor theatre, towards the front, and the first-floor sports hall, at the back, are both expressed as double-order volumes, the stone border extending to wrap around and enclose their protruding forms, and providing terraces on their rooftops.

While the building’s upper storeys are clad in full-height glazing, alternating with aluminium composite panels in six shades of blue and grey, the theatre and sports hall are differentiated by a gaudy rainbow barcode of blue, yellow, orange, red and purple glazed panels.

“There is this issue of branding now,” says SHL partner Morten Schmidt, sounding rather uncomfortable with the idea. “Every college must have its own colours, and they cannot be the same as another.” One can imagine this gewgaw garb is anathema to his Scandinavian sensibilities – particularly for a practice whose work stands out for its restrained palette of simple, high-spec materials – and it does add a certain cheapness to the envelope. But, with AHMM’s lurid Westminster Academy down the road, it seems it was forced to play the game.

Along the ground-floor elevation, a glazed south-facing lobby soon gives way to a translucent greenish wall of channelled Reglit glass that continues along the western, northern, and halfway down the eastern facades, rising to double height at various points to reflect the layout within. Although it brings an appropriately industrial aesthetic to the interior, providing a bright backdrop for the mechanics yard and carpentry workshops, it reads as yet another material on this already busy wrapping.

While the strategy has clearly been to try and express the interior arrangement – and, in planner-speak, to “break up the massing” and “add interest” to the building – from St Mary’s Gardens, it looks like a 100m test wall of different cladding systems, a graceless collage of panels and flaps. From carefully chosen angles, it has the strident clarity of high modernism, crisp white planes separated by bands of diaphanous louvres; you can almost glimpse muscular echoes of Lasdun, only bleached and tidied up. But, as a whole, it is a decidedly clumsy creature, taking its cue from the local vernacular of the corpulent glassy office blocks over the road at Paddington Basin.

Once within, however, it is a different story. College vice principal David Pigden tells me that, at competition stage in 2006, SHL stood out for its emphasis on the public, open nature of its proposal – particularly rare in our security-conscious fortress school environment – and this is the first impression on entering. A generous double-height entrance leads to a park-facing public café, with outside terrace along the building’s western flank, and to the 140-seat theatre to the east.

You are a full 30m deep into the centre of the plan before you hit the security turnstiles. From here, the soffit is cut away to give alluring views up into the terraced floors of the central atrium, a concrete spiral of switchbacks and overhangs that appears to wind down in a dynamic cascade. It is a compelling vision, enough to make anyone want to sign up for a plumbing course then and there, and the information office is strategically located right here at the point of revelation.

Ground floor plan

GROUND FLOOR PLAN

1 Main entrance
2 Foyer
3 Café
4 Exhibition/information
5 Toilets
6 Lifts and stairs
7 Theatre
8 Electrical workshop
9 Furniture and joinery workshop
10 Painting and decoration workshop
11 Main stairway
12 General engineering workshop
13 Electrical installations
14 Plumbing installations
15 Bricklaying workshop
16 Open learning
17 Motor vehicle workshop

 

A broad oak staircase rises up in the centre of the atrium at an oblique angle, designed with double treads at one side for perching and loitering Herman Hertzberger-style. The plan for a flowing freeform stair, however – as SHL achieved at its similar college in Norway – has been curtailed by UK building regs: two handrails now run up the centre of this open cascade, as well as clunky guard rails above each perch, turning the whole thing into a health and safety obstacle course.

“In Scandinavia there is a lot of freedom to do what we want,” says Schmidt, and there are several instances where you can sense that a simple Danish design idea has been squeezed through the risk-averse culture of the UK design and build process, not always with happy results.

But the driving principles thankfully don’t get lost in translation. Once up in the atrium, it truly feels like one continuous open space, the asymmetric floor plates cut to create a variety of double-height landings, framing expansive views across the different levels. Even the 7m-high volume of the library is part of the same space. This would normally cause acoustic problems, as is so disastrously the case at Foster’s Cambridge Law Library. But thanks to interior walls being lined with perforated timber panelling, and a large number of ceiling baffles, as well as the sheer size of the space, the acoustic is remarkably dead. It somehow feels impossible to shout, and the softness belies the fact that these floors are already teeming with up to 3,000 excited students, eagerly exploring the people-watching potentials of their new learning landscape.

“It was important for the building to be as open as possible,” says Pigden. “We wanted to be able to teach outside the four walls of the classroom, and have a variety of spaces for different sized groups.” The floors are thus arranged with conventional classrooms around their perimeter, separated by wide corridors that house bookable teaching areas, from informal seating zones to glazed pods and timber-clad IT tunnels.

“Any space is a potential learning space,” he says, explaining how the building is configured to allow students to choose where to study between lessons, on loaned laptops. Like a light and inviting version of Sandy Wilson’s British Library terraces, the study areas are already swarming with clusters of wifi workers.

Open floors provide a range of informal learning spaces.

Source: Adam Mørk

Open floors provide a range of informal learning spaces.

Away from the atrium, spaces are equally thoughtfully designed. Specific facilities, from photography studios to science labs, are amply catered for, while the generic classrooms are an airy 3.1m tall, with full-height glazing and at least one openable “windoor”, manually operable outside the central building and management system. A large refectory on the third floor leads out on to an oak-decked terrace above the sports hall, its three ventilation chimneys piercing the deck in a jolly touch of services-as-theatre, while the staff have a separate private terrace on the fifth floor.

Throughout the interior, the material palette is kept simple – “in keeping with the Scandinavian design heritage,” says Schmidt – with exposed soffits, timber panels, and the white reconstituted stone capping that runs seamlessly from inside to out, “in a continuous Aalto sweep,” grins Dorsett.

Substantial 600mm-diameter concrete columns on a grid of 7.8m centres support the 300mm deep slabs, the columns at either end of the building raked at a jaunty 25 degrees, puncturing the classrooms and intersecting the vertical columns in the entrance to provide a dramatic sculptural detail.

In all, it is an interesting first work in the UK for this large Danish practice, exhibiting many of the generous spatial features of their grander public buildings, only executed in a more restricted context. Schmidt explains how, once it had secured the competition, it was key that the practice opened an office in London. “There are Danish architects who think they can do it all from home,” he says. “But for us, it was crucial to combine the Scandinavian conceptual approach with the local skill and knowledge.” Hiring such experienced project architects as Dorsett was clearly essential in steering the project through a problematic course that included the first contractor going bust and the office suffering two rounds of redundancies. But it still remains telling, in places, that this is the work of a practice used to a considerably less contractual context.

While this building may well be remembered as the one that slipped through the net, the lucky anomaly in the LSC’s programme of farcical incompetence, it provides a powerful monument to the importance of inspirational spaces in raising the value of skills training. And, judging by the students’ reaction, it has made them all the more eager to continue learning.

PROJECT TEAM

Architect Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, Client City of Westminster College, Engineer Buro Happold, Main contractor McLaren Construction, Other consultants Knight Frank, Stace

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