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Stratford Campus, University of East London, by Richard Murphy Architects

[BUILDING STUDY + PLANS + DATA] It’s the masterplan that makes these academic buildings shine, says Jay Merrick

If one takes a 15-minute walk north-east from Stratford Station in east London, with a view to imposing a masterplan on a small urban lacuna off the Romford Road, that noun’s suggestion of omniscience becomes instructively eroded.

From the high-tech quiff of Wilkinson Eyre’s 1999 Stratford Station, the pedestrian passes through the Stratford Centre shopping mall into the clangorous Broadway, and finally reaches Romford Road and the modest domestic streets running off it.

This is more than box-tickable contextual reference: it is the disorder of life and movement that evokes French scholar Michel de Certeau’s suggestion, in his 1980 book The Practice of Everyday Life, that because cities are fundamentally the constructs of governments and big business, the only meaningful way they can exist is to be literally walked into existence by people possessing places with their incidental movements, emotions and imaginations.

Richard Murphy Architects’ Stratford Campus masterplan and three buildings for the University of East London (UEL), on a site just north of the junction of Romford Road and Water Lane, have remodelled the fractious ambiguities of this found locale, and put them into a metaphorical bell jar in E15.

There are useful cracks in the polished glass of practice director Richard Murphy’s intent. The new buildings lie on a site of about 1.5ha, and they carry the practice’s graphic hierarchies and inscriptions of surface, volume and expressed structure. Yet it is the way the buildings are arranged on-site that generates the most interesting outcomes, and questions.

The new Computer and Conference Centre and the Clinical Education Centre form a L-plan, and they combine with two existing buildings to complete a courtyard, called the ‘university green’, that sits on the path of a thoroughfare, The Green, which once ran uninterrupted from Water Lane, eastwards through the campus site. The short segment between Water Lane and the campus’ metal gates, which passes alongside UEL’s 1898 University House, remains. Part of the northern edge of the Computer and Conference Centre butts into the mediumrise 1960s Arthur Edwards Building, which is more or less in the middle of the masterplan site. Behind it, to the north, is Murphy’s third new building, the Cass School of Education.

The new buildings have assiduously clarified sections and the result is that, apart from the rather compressed initial entrance and movement sequence through the Computer and Conference Centre, the generality of visual connections and circulation through all of the buildings can be understood within moments of entering them. The decisiveness of the sections are particularly apparent in the resolution of the stepped tiers of terminals in the computing segment, and in the innovatively fanned bank of ‘opera box’ podiatric treatment cells in the Clinical Education Centre.

The Cass School of Education offers the most dramatic internal arrangement; a full-height void wrapped by three levels of steel walkways, interrupted at one end by a timber-surfaced drum containing layers of meeting rooms. The overall effect in each building is of a precisely tailored, but faintly Cubist eclecticism. Architectural detail and structure strike each other with politely implacable differences of weight, line, texture, light and shadow.

These haptic provocations are much less apparent in the facades of the buildings, which suggest only the thinnest of envelopes. The sharply delineated eaves and heftily revealed steel sections seem almost appliquéd, and offer little resonant sense of mass.

In positioning the new buildings, Murphy sought to evoke an Oxbridge courtyard typology to create a calm and secure place 100m away from the busy Romford Road. The primary intention was to completely block out Ferns Road, which runs behind the Clinical Education Centre, but the discovery of a mains drain demanded an arch through the building. And this means that, looking from Water Lane, one can see right across the centre of the courtyard to the housing terraces beyond. It’s this view, and the line of trees that march alongside The Green and continue in pollarded form across the courtyard, that creates a crucial civil engagement between the campus and the streets around it.

Murphy’s masterplan leaves room for the creation of a library that would form the final blocking piece around a second courtyard, currently a green space bounded by the main facade of the Cass School of Education, the stepped-back western facade of the Arthur Edwards Building, and the rather mute north-facing brick flank of the new Computer and Conference Centre. The practice wasn’t commissioned to deliver the forthcoming library, but its proposed ‘hillside’ of triangulated book terraces looked extremely promising. However, the selected architect’s scheme is likely to add something equally innovative to a development scheme that has already given this campus a kudos beyond its fast-developing reputation for innovation in clinical education.

Ultimately, however, this masterplan and its new buildings prove yet again that the course of urban or spatial determinism rarely runs true. Here in E15, an academic courtyard has been brought to life not by the brilliant imprimatur of a diagram, but by the unremarkable, yet insistent urban precedents beyond it.

Project data

Start on site June 2007 (Clinical Education Centre, February 2005)
Contract duration 20 months (Clinical Education Centre, 13 months)
Gross internal floor area 9,009m²
Form of contract JCT with bills
Total cost £5.5 million
Cost per m² Computer and Conference Centre, £2,383; Cass School of Education, £3,494; Clinical Education Centre, £1,718
Client University Of East London
Architect Richard Murphy Architects
Structural engineer Ramboll
M&E consultant Fulcrum Consulting
Quantity surveyor Turner & Townsend
Main contractor Dean & Dyball
Annual CO2 emissions Computer and Conference Centre, 20.8kg/m²; Cass School of Education, 28.8kg /m²

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