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Masterplanning - York Heslington East Campus, York, by BDP

The success of BDP’s masterplan for York’s Heslington East campus relies on five key moves

BDP is one of Britain’s most successful masterplanning rms in terms of design quality. In 2008, its Liverpoo One masterplan, which carved out a new retail district for the city, was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize (AJ 09.10.08).

This year, BDP’s placemaking skills were once again recognised when it picked up an RIBA Award for Cluster 1 of Heslington East campus at the University of York.

BDP chairman Tony McGuirk is the architect and urban designer responsible for York’s new £200 million student townscape. It is a clear development of his plans for the University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s campus (AJ 27.03.97), developed between 1992 and 2004, and which also picked up a couple of RIBA Awards for individual buildings.

Following a limited design competition, BDP was appointed as masterplanner, architect and landscape architect in May 2007, with Arup as engineers.

The brief comprised four academic buildings; theatre, film and TV, schools of law and management, computer science, the interdisciplinary Hub, as well as a ‘knowledge transfer space’ and the 600-bed Goodricke College student accommodation.

The university’s original 1960s campus, with its parkland setting and ornamental lake, provided the starting point for Cluster 1. The design of the new masterplan evolved through close collaboration with the university.

Academic and residential buildings are clustered around a gateway building, the Hub, which contains shared research facilities and social spaces. The Hub is strategically placed at the south-east corner of the site to draw visitors towards the lakeside at the end of the main access route into the campus, the Western Vista.

A diagonal pedestrian route, a major generator of the layout, extends through the campus to the Hub.

York’s older campus to the northwest was based on a collegiate model with academic and residential accommodation within the same buildings, but the more complex demands of academic buildings made this less viable at Heslington.

Nevertheless, there is a close relationship between residential and academic spaces that goes some way towards making Heslington a ‘real’ place. McGuirk says this has been achieved ‘by wrapping the academic and college buildings in a Yin and Yang arrangement, reinforcing their symbiotic relationship’. Overleaf, McGuirk presents the five big ideas that underpin his strategy for this award-winning campus plan.

Heslington_East_Masterplan_drawings_reduced_4

The 5-step masterplan: Easy movement around the lakeside campus and making the most of the surrounding parkland were central to BDP’s vision writes Tony McGuirk

Step 1 Determine an ethereal brief as the spiritual springboard of the masterplan

In some ways, Louis Kahn’s mantra of writing ‘the essay of what the place wants to be’ forms this seminal step in the design process. At the start of the project, this was determined with the university to be: ‘Intermingling learning activities within a landscape setting’.

The very spirit of this promotes the idea of a non-urban grouping of learning spaces, with the buildings as enclosures and identity points. These act as part of the landscape, visually linked with the surroundings and locality, which creates a softer, loose-fit concept of place that is strongly associated with its wider setting.

Step 2 Shape the plan around the climatic context to form a positive microclimate for the future

Alvar Aalto said that ‘topography is the starting point’ to the design of any building. For me, climate is the starting point to any masterplan and is a major determinant of people’s behaviour in a place. With every place we create, we also create a new microclimate, and this should be a positive one that stimulates activity and enjoyment throughout the seasons, as well as offsetting energy loss and unnecessary energy use.

At York, the climatic wrap of the residential college protects from the cold northerly winds and forms a suntrap in the garden spaces throughout the year, especially importantly for the low-angled winter sun. All the spaces within the heart of the cluster are shaped as ‘solar carpets’ to trap sunlight and warm up cold days. All entrances to buildings are orientated southto south-east, the most benign orientation in Britain, which creates sunny, sheltered spaces for people as they arrive in the morning. The lake is set on the south side of the clusters to reflect the light into the buildings, through what we termed the ‘Lugano effect’, with the lakeshore activities receiving bright light throughout the day and all the effect this has on people’s mood.

Step 3 Design with human scale and identity in mind

Team 10’s discussion about urban design as ‘architectural urbanism’ or ‘urbanistic architecture’ comes to mind here.

Places are expressed from their urban form down to their material and architectural detail. This needs to be recognised in all building forms, from high to low or big to small. Tall buildings can of course be given a human scale, as shown in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena or the Turning Torso at BO 1 in Malmö. The scale of spaces between the buildings and the topography plays an important role in humanising the places we create.

At York, we were careful to give variety to the spaces between the buildings, with large areas for gathering, a sinuous continuity in the pedestrian ribbon for movement, intimate garden spaces among colleges, and alleys for shortcuts between buildings. The buildings form their own topography in the landscape, stepping down from six to single-storey height, from north to south. The human scale is recognised throughout in the ergonomic window design, some of which are for sitting at, others for standing by, with bedroom windows for peeping out of your bed in the morning. Here, people can easily recognise the window of their room or where they work, or bigger expressions of public buildings such as the window on to the lake in the Hub.

Step 4 Create a place with people at the heart of the idea, giving them an environment they enjoy

Jan Gehl’s immortal phrase ‘Life, spaces and buildings, and in that order please,’ is an important touchstone for all those involved in masterplanning. Primacy must go to the people who move around the masterplan on foot; individuals, groups of friends, families with buggies and small children, older generations and people who need good access for wheelchairs.

Next are cyclists, an important group integrated primarily with pedestrians, rather than traffic. Buses and public transport form the all-important link between people in vehicles and people on foot who use public spaces.

Finally, cars and servicing vehicles require clear points of access that are complimentary to pedestrian traffic. The city of Copenhagen is an exemplar of a modern progressive environment in this respect. BDP’s Liverpool One project, Paleiskwartier in Holland, and other universities we have designed, such as Sunderland and Limerick, exude this idea of a continuous place for those who walk through it.

York’s masterplan is based on a two-minute walking time between events, to create a place that is easy to find your way around, and therefore safe and enjoyable.

Step 5 Form a sequence of settings that can be experienced discretely or serially allowing for organic growth

Masterplans are realised over long and sometimes unpredictable timeframes, and it is important to create a sense of place from the start. Designing the concept as a sequence of interlinked areas with their own identities gives legibility and integrity to the setting of each part. The experience becomes richer and more varied as the sequence of settings grows over time.

We conceived each of York’s university clusters as a microcosm of the whole masterplan - a kind of masterplan within a masterplan.

In this way, the first cluster is a place in itself, experienced as a living and learning environment with all the ingredients of the totality, in its urban/landscape structure, the activities it houses, the way people move around it, its visual links, and scale. A place you will become familiar with, in part or in whole, find things you haven’t noticed before, and have some favourites that you always return to.

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