Guy Hollaway Architects’ Crit Building for Kent School of Architecture is kinetic but practical, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Charles Hosea
Architects make tough clients. But when a school of architecture is the client, the joke becomes a pantomime. You might even hypothesise that this, rather than funding restrictions, would explain the poverty of British architecture school buildings.
Kent School of Architecture’s new Crit Building, which was opened two weeks before last month’s end-of-term reviews, had a demanding brief. This challenged invited competitors to design a beacon to attract talented students, using digital technology to transform the crit process and enhancing its context within the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus. Although the brief said the school preferred not to be highly prescriptive, its head, Don Gray, who worked with Price, Rogers, Piano and Grimshaw, naturally took a personal interest in the project and its direction as an exemplary work of kinetic architecture in Guy Hollaway Architects’ hands.
After crossing the glazed bridge from the school’s original home in the 1960s Marlowe Building and passing through a silver door in a black expanded metal-faced wall, you enter a long space configured in one of two ways. In the flush configuration, a continuous, felt-faced, acoustically absorbent pinboard lines the outer walls, whereas in the articulated mode, transverse screens demarcate crit bays, each with what principal partner Guy Hollaway calls a ‘giant iPad’, recessed into the outer wall. These screens, the same pinboards that line the outer walls in the flush configuration, use connections that enable them to pivot and slide along horizontal runners and they tuck away into pockets in the space’s corners.
The mechanical adaptability of these boards, inspired by the display system at London’s Soane Museum, is complemented by the versatility of the digital screens, with wiring in continuous perimeter benches, which also accommodate heating. Along with the planks of the limewashed oak floor, a central linear rooflight with acid-etched glass, concealing unsightly deposits on its top surface, emphasises the space’s length, drawing the eye towards the picture window at its far end, where there is a postgraduate room behind a glass wall.
The plasterboard suspended ceiling, which has been angled to increase the rooflight’s apparent size, completes the minimalist palette of low-key finishes, chosen as a backdrop to displays. Although carefully integrated and co-ordinated, however, the screens have an officey ‘Windows-grey’ feel and the recesses in which they sit are, visually, too large.
The Crit Building’s exterior is likewise practical. Docked against the Marlowe and at right angles to it, this forms the north side of a hitherto barren piazza opposite a retail terrace and is flanked by Hawkins\Brown’s zinc-clad Jarman School of Arts. Perched on circular concrete columns above an area used by Jarman students for theatrical props, it is conceptually similar to atraditional English country town hall, with open market space below, but is semi-enclosed by expanded metal screens.
Most striking of all is the bespoke screen of small rectangular anodised aluminium flaps on the south elevation at first-floor level, each with a stainless steel hinge connection to a continuous black powder-coated aluminium egg crate. This provides solar shading and the flaps form a surface that ripples like a sheet of water. This abstract, almost onomatopoeic poetry is complemented by an array of chain drains that will irrigate fragrant jasmine climbers trained through the expanded metal screen.
‘We worked on the kinetic screen with the school of architecture, which was inspired by Ned Kahn Studio,’ says Hollaway. Like the interior, this facade will inspire students by demonstrating that architects working rigorously with ambitious clients and practical contractors can turn imaginative ideas into reality.