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School authority

Hawkins\Brown’s confident Kingston Business School plays a central role in re-organising a campus of ad hoc buildings, says David Howarth. Photography by Hufton+Crow

As architect Hawkins\Brown was preparing to hand over a new building to Kingston University, a survey by its contractor Wates revealed that universities were continuing to significantly invest in their building stock to lift the attractiveness of their institutions in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

With reduced public spending and a subsequent drop in course applications, institutions are becoming ever more demanding of this investment. Buildings need to be photogenic for the prospectus and provide efficient teaching space that is flexible enough to meet the needs of constantly changing course programmes. With student experience statistics now a major factor in an institution’s league table scoring, they need to impress at the open day and continue to provide cost-effective learning environments for the lifetime of the building.

The new £17.5 million Kingston Business School building, which opened in April this year, certainly looks to have delivered this, within a modest budget and a challenging site.

Kingston Hill Campus is set within a conservation area on a sloping, south-facing site, bounded by protected woodland to the north, the large detached houses of Coombe Park to the South and Wimbledon Common to the east. The site once formed part of the Coombe estate, home to a long-since demolished Palladian villa and gardens. Over the years the site has acquired an ad hoc collection of buildings, the best of these being the Nightingale Library extension, designed by John McAslan and Partners in 2007. As you enter the site from Kingston Hill and descend the contours of the approach road the presence of the new building among its neighbours is immediate.

Set behind an unassuming law faculty building, the new business school imposes itself with confidence and authority – a four-storey monolithic brick volume cut into the slope with a set of vertically proportioned and deeply revealed windows registering each floor. The facades are without hierarchy, save for bronze anodised aluminium panels between pairs of windows and a fibre-cement-clad fifth floor, tonally equivalent to the aluminium but on the day of my visit blending seamlessly with a flat grey sky.

The brief demanded that the new building play a central role in re-organising the campus, connecting the surrounding academic buildings and resolving the complex levels of the site. Even from a distance this is clearly evident, its posture and precision subjugating its neighbours and presenting a sober, well-dressed confidence through the singular use of a material. It exudes authority and suggests a permanence that will perhaps fool visitors into thinking that this was the first building to have been constructed on the site, rather than the last.

Its character from afar suggests historical continuity with the tradition of a ‘villa’ in the landscape. It is a compact and ordered figure, placed between town and country and understood in the round. Closer to, the building reveals a number of more intricate layers. Each ‘face’ subtly responds to its relationship to the site while collectively the facades establish a continuity of character and act as a constant reference point wherever you are on the campus.

The facades are seen obliquely on approach and each entrance is simply registered with fibre-cement canopies, the main entrance signified with a portico. The deep-set full-height windows emerge into view as you near and a subtle leaf motif can be seen etched on to the bronze aluminium panels.

This simple treatment of an anodised surface, which can appear very flat and immaterial when used in large sheets, gives lustre, adjusting the tone of the panels as they catch the changing light throughout the day.

The main entrance is on its five-storey, south-facing facade, its position responding to the hierarchy of entry established by an axis, which runs through the middle of the site. This street is the principal ordering device of the campus and connects
the main entrances of a series of existing teaching blocks and library. The building is served by three further entrances, two at first-floor level on
the east and west facades and a third on the second floor, connected by a bridge to catering facilities at the top of the site.

The project was commissioned to provide flexible teaching space for a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Hawkins\Brown has responded to this brief with a clear plan diagram and a simple set of rooms to allow various scales of teaching to take place. These spaces, from the large lecture theatres and teaching studios on the lower floors to smaller classrooms on the upper levels, are distributed around a large open central space, a plan type not without precedent in the history of university architecture.

The depth of the outer skin is replicated within the covered central space, a peristyle of heavy brick piers forming a two-storey cloister. The concrete structure is revealed overhead as a deep grid of polished pre-cast beams, obliquely masking the roof glazing. This central space is well proportioned and ordered but the architects have played with its classical allusions, removing the piers from each corner. This reduces its formality and symmetry, and subtly denies the brickwork as the primary structure.

On the ground floor, these open corners reveal the lecture theatres, and larger teaching spaces, encouraging diagonal movement between the two stair cores, which link the other entrances to the upper levels. A secondary lining of engineered oak acoustic panels covers the main stair and this finish is used as balustrading to the upper cloister, projecting into the space to form window seats and work spaces.

On the upper levels the teaching spaces, staff offices and research rooms occupy the perimeter with circulation concentrated around its internal facade. The removal of the structural corners here provides further space for casual study and informal meeting. This recalls Alison and Peter Smithson’s school of architecture at the University of Bath, where the occasional widening of circulation routes encourages chance encounter and conversation, as well as places to pass. The large floor-to-ceiling windows in every room are also glimpsed from these circulation spaces, bringing the landscape and horizon into the building and allowing you to constantly orientate, whether seated in a lecture or moving around the floor plate.

With a budget of £2,300/m2, the BREEAM Excellent building was procured under a Design and Build contract and it is testament to the architects, contractor Wates, and the evident control of project architect Donna Walker, that the end result exudes quality. Hawkins\Brown will be pleased with its recent haul of RIBA Awards in this sector, for the Hub at Coventry University and its housing for the Royal Veterinary College, but the failure of the judges to commend this project has probably come as a surprise. However, this oversight should not detract from the level of architectural thinking which has gone into producing a serious building which is precise in its making and economically driven, yet materially rich and characterful.

I am sure it will prove to be a valuable addition to the university estate and will support students through their academic lives for many decades to come.

David Howarth is co-founder and director of DRDH Architects, London

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See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for Kingston Business School by Hawkins\Brown

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