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Wednesday23 July 2014

UCL’s new site is not ‘in’ Stratford at all

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The planned campus seems designed not to engage with its surroundings

Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley

If you want an optimistic picture of the future of architecture, then the occupation of buildings in University College London in protest against UCL’s plans for class-cleansing an inconvenient Stratford council estate out of their way is as good as it gets. Along with the statement by several UCL lecturers against the current plans, it’s a rare and welcome example of students, architects and council tenants being on the same side.

In this particularly alarming example of the habitual contempt of gown for town, what do the plans for UCL Stratford say about the relationship of the university to the city around it? UCL is cagey about what exactly will go into the new campus — rumour has it that arms research will have a privileged place in UCL Stratford — but as an urban intervention, the plans by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands are vague in the extreme. They appear, with their silhouettes of dense blocks and towers, as an extension of the redevelopment of Stratford in recent years as a buy-to-let skycity with little of interest on the ground. The change predates UCL, which is merely hopping on to a bandwagon that began with the Thames Gateway non-plan, the publicly funded, Qatari Diar-owned Olympic Village, Westfield Stratford and such like. The idea is not so much to build a campus “in Stratford”, more to build a campus tantalisingly close to Docklands and international train links — and, quite possibly, far from radical arts students.

Campus architecture and planning has a chequered history, and now has two distinct models. The campus in the city is frequently found with ex-polytechnics and red-brick universities such as Sheffield and Manchester, where students have an obvious, partly positive and partly dubious effect on the city around. The plate glass universities of the 1960s preferred virgin sites on the outskirts, creating self-contained places that are part Ivy League, part Ville Radieuse. Brunel University is a brutalist metropolis set down in suburban greenery, and hardly has much in the way of obvious radicalism — who do you appeal to, or picket, when you’re dumped in the outskirts? Yet, as Alan Powers has pointed out, the high-density, communal approach of something like the University of Essex was a godsend for politicos, making organisation and co-ordination easy; but it made relating to the rest of the world more difficult.

The only major new campus university — with students living onsite — is the University of East London. Isolated, post-industrial and ex-urban as its dockside setting might have been, Ted Cullinan’s campus here was the opposite of UCL’s Russell Group hauteur, serving a very different (and with the fee rises, now expendable) kind of student.

The notion that UEL’s campus could “regenerate” the surrounding area was always dubious, and it appears as part of a continuum with the ExCeL centre, City Airport and Newham Council’s offices, with roads and docks cutting it off from residential areas. Yet what it did do is play a role in educating people from the area. UCL appears to think that building a campus in Stratford will make the place better by “outreach” or osmosis — which is not the same thing at all.

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