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Thursday24 July 2014

Cranfield Centre for Competitive Creative Design, by Niall McLaughlin Architects

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With its distinctive wing-like roof, Niall McLaughlin’s building for Cranfield University in Bedfordshire fits well with the ambition of the only campus to have its own airfield.

’We are here to develop the innovation leaders of tomorrow,” says course leader Leon Williams, standing in Cranfield University’s new Centre for Competitive Creative Design building, recently completed by Niall McLaughlin Architects. “The future of business depends on teaching strategic creativity.”

Behind him, the wall is plastered with Post-it notes, with words like “vision”, “essence” and “identity” covering a board entitled “Brand Equity Framework”. Nearby, cut-out pictures of expensive watches surround a “brand touch point wheel”.

Laminated in large vinyl letters across the wall, a slogan declares that “innovation demands creative individuals who can dream new ideas and turn them into reality”. A table sits below, displaying the three stages of the lemon juicer – from the hand-held, to the electric, to Philippe Starck’s notoriously dysfunctional Juicy Salif – as if charting the evolutionary folly of design. With its corporate dressing of mind-maps and flipcharts, it could be an audition room for The Apprentice.

“This department was a product of the Cox Review,” explains industry service manager Martin Grant, referring to the 2005 Review of Creativity in Business, which stated that “centres of innovation excellence” should be developed to support multi-disciplinary courses, combining management studies, engineering, technology and the creative arts. A hallmark of New Labour, “design thinking” would be the salve for UK business, paired with the holy grail of innovation.

It has all the trappings of a place trying to look like it is at the forefront of something

Established in 2008 as a joint venture with the University of the Arts London, the Cranfield Centre for Competitive Creative Design (or “C4D,” as it is snappily known, and decaled across the window) has just received its purpose-built home, perched on the edge of an airfield, deep in the bucolic Bedfordshire countryside. Nestled between aircraft hangars and rolling fields, it seems an unlikely place to brew the future of business innovation.

Cranfield University was formed in 1946 as the College of Aeronautics on the former RAF Cranfield air base. It prides itself on its close relationship with industry – and on being the only UK university with its own airfield. The present-day campus is a strangely sprawling agglomeration of buildings, with the fragmented grain of a business park, sheds of different sizes sprinkled like hulking confetti across the landscape.

There is an original 1930s brick fabric of low-rise, pitch-roofed barracks, organised around a central axis of symmetry, culminating in an arc of vast aircraft hangers fronting on to the airfield. These buildings have been variously modified with clip-on glazed frontages, swooping canopies, tensile hyperbolic membranes: all the trappings of a place trying to look like it is at the forefront of something.

In between, stacks of fading portacabins and boxes sprouting pipes and chimneys fill bits of leftover space. More recent additions include Norman Foster’s Kings Norton Library of 1993 – a purpose-built shed, all louvres and slender barrel vaults – and Sheppard Robson’s 2008 Vincent building for Cranfield Health, lumpen glazed and grilled boxes strapped on to the front of a hangar.

These are the two immediate neighbours of Niall McLaughlin’s diminutive new arrival, which sits at the apex of a fan-shaped space, formed by the two bulky sheds. Acting as blinkers, these angled boxy forms channel the view towards the airfield, creating a ready-made stage set for the theatre of C4D to unfold.

Raised on a low concrete plinth, the building sits squarely in the corner formed by the adjacent (still functioning) hangar and the Foster library, continuing the line of the latter to form an edge to what will, hopefully one day, become a more defined public space. “This could be a communal square, a new focus for the campus,” says project architect Tilo Guenther, gesturing towards what is presently a car park and unused green space that fronts on to the building. There is currently no masterplan – as evidenced by the site’s jumbled ad-hoc nature – so the architects have left subtle suggestions to pre-empt what could happen.

The brief was for a relatively modest proposition: a 300sq m building to house a large, flexible studio space, staff offices and meeting rooms; but its symbolic role would be much greater. This was to be the interdisciplinary “hothouse,” the creative hub where postgraduate students, teachers, researchers and industry partners could explore the embedding of creativity and design capability into UK and global industry. It was to have an ambassadorial role in the campus, stand as a visible showcase of collaboration.

Its siting, as a pavilion in an imagined square, hugged by the library, Cranfield Health, the School of Applied Sciences, gives it the potential to achieve this role, in a position of exposure and substantial footfall.

“We have designed the building with maximum transparency,” says Guenther, “conceiving the street-facing elevation as a large shop window.”

This library-facing facade is fully glazed, lined with meeting rooms behind, where the drama of conference calls can be played out for all to see, with a view through to the studio beyond.

The building is composed as a series of timber boxes of 2.7m ceiling height, externally clad in larch boarding, stained pale grey to pre-empt uneven weathering. These frame the central open forum of the studio, where the volume rises to an airy 4m, and up to 5.5m in places. On top of these boxes sits a lattice of glulam timber beams – two longitudinal beams, 800mm deep, project out to the south-east, overhanging by 3.6m towards the airfield, across which sit 13 perpendicular beams, of 600mm depth, which cantilever out almost the same distance over the south-west facade.

Here, the concrete plinth is extended, providing a covered space for outdoor classes in summer. To the north-east and north-west, the beams fall short, effectively offsetting the roof towards the south, providing a certain dynamism in elevation and emphasising the composition as an assembly of parts. By accentuating the structural layering, it feels as if it might be possible to re-arrange the pieces on a whim, as though the beams might continue to slide across the top of the shifting boxes below.

Crowning this bold structural grid, a series of wing-like panels project upwards to the north, arranged in rows at a 45-degree angle to the frame. These timber elements are 2.9m wide – determined by the standard panel width, for minimum waste – and capped with a profiled metal top, chamfered down to a slender edge to further amplify their aeronautical appearance. Seen from the airfield, floating above a muddled fibreglass medley of light aircraft – a gleaming clutter of wings jostling for position with tailfins – the roof looks at home, as though manufactured from its neighbours’ spare parts, almost ready to take off.

The repetitive, saw-tooth profile also echoes the industrial roof forms of adjacent structures; from the hangars, to the labs, to the Foster library, rhythmic rows of pitched components characterise the local rooftop vernacular. But, as you walk around the building, this apparently simple geometry takes on beguiling optical qualities, reading as a strangely flattened false perspective from the north-west, and further skewed from the south-east, owing to the different angles at which the wings are cut at the building line.

As you walk around, the apparently simple geometry takes on beguiling optical qualities

Inside, this north light structure provides ample natural daylight, enhanced by the timber’s faint white finish. Seen from below, the stacked structural layering of deep perpendicular beams, topped with an origami of folded plates, supported by vertical steel struts, and overlaid with the hanging rails of lighting, creates a complex spatial collage. For a design and build contract, such complexity is impressive, as is the detailed level of finish – the result of much toing and froing of 3D models between the architect and manufacturer to perfect the geometries of the many different triangular glazing panels.

The central studio is lined on its long sides by two oblong timber forms, built in structural KLH cross-laminated timber, one side housing offices and toilets, the other acting as a storage wall, with cupboards finished in pin-board, and other surfaces in wipe-clean frosted whiteboard glazing – already covered in energetic spider diagrams. A freestanding partition wall, also in KLH, defines a space for lectures and meetings, screening a tea point behind, with a full-height felt curtain able to provide visual, and slight acoustic, baffling.

The space is fully glazed at either end, and has since been fitted out with a corporate arsenal of Herman Miller furniture, including an elaborate structure of “PhD pods” at the southern end, effectively blocking what would otherwise be a seamless view out to the airfield. The architects had specified long worktables at 90 degrees to the window, to avoid screen glare, but these have since been turned lengthways. “We’ve been playing with different configurations,” says Grant. “We need a flexible workspace to create different tensions to facilitate training as managers and leaders.” But, in their passion to create leaders, they have essentially recreated a stultifyingly dull office environment.

Like other “pioneering” educational buildings I have reviewed in these pages, the ambition seems to be based on replicating the business model – it’s all hot-desking and fluid, freeform learning. Although this is their home, the students don’t even have their own space, nor a place to make a mess. That can be done down the road.

While the ideology behind this new department is yet to be proven, and it will take time until the space finds its best arrangement, the architects must nonetheless be congratulated. For a slender budget of £1.25 million, and built in an impressive 10 months, the Centre for Competitive Creative Design has a new jewel-like home, a signpost on the campus that speaks of the drama and dynamism of innovation – whatever that might turn out to be.

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