Tim Ronalds Architects’ Colyer-Fergusson Music Building is warmer and more human than its Sevenoaks School Performing Arts Centre, but is it less disciplined? By Felix Mara. Photography by Christian Richters
It’s easy for visitors to lose their way on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus. Like England’s other plate glass universities, the design of its first buildings was entrusted to a high-profile practice, Holford & Partners, and it sits in parkland on the outskirts of a historic county town, but it disorientates because, despite spectacular views of the town below, it has no strong organising site layout and few architectural landmarks.
Its low-key, low-rise and generally low-budget pioneers of the ’60s and ’70s don’t seem to want to talk to each other: two slit-windowed Holford Space Invader colleges here, an octagonal senate house there and, also by Farmer & Dark, the Gulbenkian Theatre and Cinema, now adjoined to Tim Ronalds Architects’ Colyer-Fergusson Music Building, opened last month to provide the campus with a dedicated flexible performance and rehearsal hall with practice and teaching rooms.
Though three miles out of town, the campus is within reach of the deathly hand of Canterbury City Council’s planners, who considered it their business to demand blockwork outer walls at Colyer-Fergusson to ‘match and rhyme’ with neighbouring buildings. Although it’s good to see this form of construction return from the wilderness, this seems to have put Tim Ronalds Architects’ nose out of joint.
‘There’s something weird about the scale of block,’ says project principal Tim Ronalds, who wanted brick. As it happens, the practice rose to the occasion, developing bespoke blocks faced with pebble and flint, which is historically indigenous to the region, although these look dour and oatmealy on overcast days.
Ronalds is one of those architects who loathe compromise. You can imagine him as a hermitic Louis Khan figure, sleeping in his shirt perhaps, or a vigilant, harpoon-wielding Captain Ahab. His firm’s PR is done in-house, evoking what some will consider the good old days. He’s an architect’s architect, devoted to his calling. Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism could have been dedicated to him.
‘Each building is designed as a response to the one which preceded it,’ he says. With this dialectic embedded in the practice’s methodology, Colyer-Fergusson’s design and construction process was unlikely to be happy-go-lucky.
The project that preceded it was Sevenoaks School Performing Arts Centre (AJ 24.06.10), which succeeded Watford Music Centre. Colyer-Fergusson’s performance space is more versatile and, as project architect Kate Biro emphasises, its steel structure is hidden behind finishes and this complements a strategy which conceals services and acoustic performance regulators within voids in the construction. Sevenoaks was also more difficult and, by a factor of 50 per cent, more costly to build and you might ask whether Colyer-Fergusson involved too many compromises.
Externally, leaving aside the blockwork, Colyer-Fergusson is a very different animal to Sevenoaks, with less regimented fenestration and, fortunately, nothing that bears comparison with its steep, abrupt gable, which is stylistically beyond
the pale for some who consider themselves Modernists. That gable is nevertheless the consequence of a rigorous logic that refuses to gloss over the geometry of the performance space within.
That great proto-functionalist fruitcake AWN Pugin, another obsessive but with a remarkable talent for self-publicity, would certainly have been impressed, but might also have taken exception to Colyer-Fergusson’s composed facades, its horizontal parapets, repeated on the skyline of the box that encloses the auditorium and overhead loft, which act as a buffer that absorbs its splayed rooflight reveals. The step in the east facade’s parapet makes for a pleasing elevation but, seen obliquely, it just flaps about.
Internally, Colyer-Fergusson uses the same Douglas fir as Sevenoaks, chosen for its warmth and acoustic ambience. After the hair-shirt external blockwork, relieved by a jutting but friendly entrance canopy with retro signage, the long entrance foyer announces an interior that feels much warmer than Sevenoaks. It glows with the ambient light from endless arrays of diffusing ceiling fittings, including large-radius, domed numbers, whose cohorts also pervade the smaller rooms.
It’s a linear space on axis with the Gulbenkian foyer, which it links to, and it pops up to first floor level traversed by a long staircase in two flights, which turns as it meets ground level and has lovingly crafted white steel balusters and timber handrails. Overhead, daylight drifts down between diffusing plastic-clad beams. You’re almost in an Aalto foyer - congenial, Moderne, convivial and retro.
Passing from the foyer to the flexibly level floor of the auditorium - the alternative route is via the staircase - you enter a chasm between two banks of partially retractable seating. The rows of seats are cambered on plan, giving a more central focus to the space, but the bank on the left has a potential capacity of 400, whereas the other could seat 200, a choir perhaps. Despite the concealed services strategy, the auditorium’s wall and ceiling surfaces seem to express their construction but in fact this is a grid of finely tuned acoustically diffusing facing rails. ‘We negotiated the panels with the acoustician,’ says Ronalds, dryly.
‘The curtains do more than the overhead acoustic banners at Sevenoaks.’ These curtains retract into cavities behind the wall finishes for longer reverberation times and an acoustic environment which is closer to a purely geometric paradigm. They are also double-sided so they can match or contrast with the Douglas fir finishes and they are carefully designed to avoid bunching. Although this auditorium’s size is similar to Sevenoaks’, it feels more human and approachable, more like a room, and it has large side windows as well as a rooflight.
What’s missing is the spatial complexity of Sevenoaks, which may not be the National or the Lyric, but does take delight in the interconnection and drama of spaces and in their dialogue with exposed structure. Despite Colyer-Fergusson’s softer, mildly intoxicating, oak-aged added warmth and humanity, you might ask whether you’d prefer something crusty, sharper and more disciplined, with more of the old Malvolio and less cakes and ale.
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See images and drawings of the Colyer-Fergusson Music Building by Tim Ronalds Architects and five buildings at the University of Kent