Friday18 August 2017

Architects’ inspirations

Simon Henley’s inspiration: James Stirling’s Andrew Melville Hall

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Simon Henley of Buschow Henley Architects revisits James Stirling’s Andrew Melville Hall at the University of St Andrews

Inspiration Andrew Melville Hall, St Andrews University
Architect James Stirling
Year completed 1968
Location St Andrews, scotland

I was taught by James Stirling and Louis Kahn. Not face to face, but by their work, studying their plans and visiting their buildings. I’ve known Stirling’s work for over 20 years. I studied at Liverpool School of Architecture, where his work as a former student was very evident. It was there that I was introduced to his “black book” [James Stirling: Buildings & Projects 1950-74] and to Andrew Melville Hall, a hall of residence at the University of St Andrews, where I later made a pilgrimage.

Simon Henley

Credit: Peter Sandground

Simon Henley

It lived up to my expectations. It’s one of a handful of buildings he built for universities in the 1960s, and it’s the odd one out.

It deals with things I find interesting such as the culture of the institution. It’s not a pretty building, but it is heroic and dramatic. Yes, it had a few technical flaws — they added secondary glazing to make the promenade more comfortable, and I understand it leaked. But maybe when it was built it was more acceptable to just be cold or to spend more money on heating. However, there has been the confidence to let the building age and weather — it’s being overgrown by moss and lichen. Having survived its first 40 years, it should last a long time yet.

It’s a bold example of prefabricated concrete. Assembly was an industrialised process, with a crane on wheels dropping the precast wall panels into place. There are a lot of interfaces — corners, sills, small sections of flat roofs, parapets, flashings and overhangs, and lots of open joints in precast panels — so it had plenty of possible places to fail.

The jointing of the panels doesn’t just occur anywhere but where it should — in a corner. As a result, the panels and their jointing made sense of the plan and sculptural form. And the ribbing is a way of covering imperfections in the precast panels so that the concrete has grain, like timber.

Bagby Airfield’s clubhouse is planned to sit on sloping grassland in the Vale of York.

Credit: Nick Kane

On one level, it’s very idealistic. Stirling recognised the possibility of the landscape by positioning the building right on the escarpment between the coastal plain and the plateau, then created a great mid-level promenade. He took the topology and accentuated it from four storeys to eight, and accentuated the sense of landscape.

You’re really aware of belonging to this great congregation of people. Everyone shares a view inward, of each other, and outward, to the sea. It’s about the lonely relationship with the landscape and the social one with friends — written right into the plan of the building. It deals very well with the notion of society — everyone congregates at the apex of the building and at the promenades out into the two wings.

Its visual qualities are as much about looking from it as looking at it. It’s like an optical instrument — everywhere you sit, it’s like putting on a pair of binoculars with the views. The relationship between inside and outside space has a huge impact on the experience of being in a building, and you can see that here — you can’t help but be engaged by the view.

People say it has associations with ships. Personally, I think it’s more like a monastery — both live an isolated and a communal life. One of its biggest questions is the isolation. It doesn’t belong to the city, but to the place, the topography. It has a primordial connection with the landscape. You could interpret this removal from the town as a physical manifestation of the legitimate removal of students from the rest of society.

People say it has associations with ships. Personally, I think it’s more like a monastery


What’s really interesting is how it touches the ground. The battered, moss-covered base is more reminiscent of motorway engineering. I also like to think it is reminiscent of the bases of rusticated renaissance palazzos. It’s very heavy on the ground, with the strong horizontal lines and the diagonal lines in the concrete all playing against the topography.

I think it’s a great fortune that they only built this part of the planned, much larger scheme. If they had, the idealised nature of it might have been lost. There are parallels with Lutyens’ Castle Drogo, which was also unfinished.

The building was completed in 1968, five years after the Leicester University engineering department.

Credit: Peter Sandground

What influence has Stirling had on my work? He influences probably everything, especially the psychological/communal aspect of buildings, what I like to call the anthropological — the rituals and behaviours of communal living. Andrew Melville Hall is a distillation of that. It predates Robin Hood Gardens, that idea of capturing a bit of green space. As soon as you make a concave space, you’re redefining something common between the people and how to use the space.

At our 2004 offices for TalkBack Productions in London, the space between the street and the mews buildings became both useful and symbolic, where people could work outside and make connections with the natural world. At St Benedict’s, a public school in west London, we’ve just created what the school has named the Cloisters, a building right at the heart of the school used for many communal things — assemblies, exams, exhibitions, drama, fencing, music. At Andrew Melville Hall, the enclosed space is primarily symbolic.

There is also an unintended

connection with the Waldron Health Centre at New Cross. From certain angles at Andrew Melville Hall, the windows on the facade seem to “disappear”; they do that too on the Waldron. When the solar and acoustic louvres (which are in the same material) are in a certain position, the facade becomes homogenous.

Building in concrete definitely interests us. There’s a robust, massive quality to it. For St Benedict’s, we used an in-situ concrete superstructure, and the building is clad with glassfibre-reinforced concrete panels. At Bagby Airfield in Yorkshire, we’re again looking at the use of monolithic, robust materials that are both sculptural and textural such as rammed earth, which is natural and more sustainable. Here, the nature of the building material can be read in the plan itself.

When I came back to see Andrew Melville Hall for a second time in December, I was overwhelmed by just how pertinent it is to what we do, and how incredible it is as a building. It’s a timeless lesson in building.

Simon Henley was speaking to Pamela Buxton.


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