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Central St Martins, King's Cross, London, by Stanton Williams

Stanton Williams’ smart retrofit for Central Saint Martins is an art school for the future, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow

‘We’ve never done anything like this before,’ says Paul Williams, director of Stanton Williams, as he surveys the outcome of nine years’ work on the project to re-house London’s Central Saint Martins (CSM) school of art and design.

A venture that began with proposals for an 11-storey development in Holborn, it ended last month when its new campus opened in N1C, at the heart of Europe’s largest regeneration site. ‘The centre of gravity in London will change,’ he foretells, as we take in unfamiliar views of familiar sights, opened up by the development of a once-derelict 67-acre brownfield site in King’s Cross. What’s different is the chemistry: a concoction of Design and Build procurement and brutal cost-cutting, with a brief and style of occupation that is not the Islington practice’s usual drink.

‘For Stanton Williams, the particular horizon is that of Total Architecture, in which one is totally in control of the means at one’s disposal… Hence the central importance attached to craft,’ 1 writes Irénée Scalbert. But at the press briefing for the new campus, the corny analogy of a ‘blank canvas’ is on everyone’s lips. In one sense, blank canvases aren’t Stanton Williams’ speciality. Despite partner Alan Stanton’s one-time involvement in process and systems architecture,2 it’s hard to think of exceptions to their provision of highly controlled and complete, though sometimes temporary, environments, which seem to say, ‘Don’t you dare put in skirtings or mess with our finishes’. Of course, Stanton Williams aren’t alone in subscribing to Gropius’ Total Architecture paradigm. Control of one’s medium, often dismissed as assumed, is actually a job description, not to say a cross to bear, for serious designers.

This is a partial retrofit that restores, adapts and adds to twin grain transit sheds and the six-storey 1852 Grade-II listed Granary building, which are all the work of Lewis Cubitt, who also designed King’s Cross railway station. This is not out of the ordinary for Stanton Williams; many of their most comprehensive Gesamtkunstwerke, for example their 1998 arts centre at Compton Verney, have involved existing buildings and Williams expresses a real appreciation of historic architecture. But Design and Build procurement is another matter. Thirteen years since the Egan Report, many architects still consider it an alternative to doing things properly. Un-novated, Stanton Williams saw out the final stages of the project in a monitoring role.

Severe funding cutbacks and constraints on budget and programme must have been particularly galling. To take just one example, these left a – hopefully temporary – legacy of missing ceilings where services were to be concealed. In places, the campus looks as though it reached practical completion by the skin of its teeth. ‘At first it was like the beginning of the world,’ says digital photography tutor Tim Marshall, ‘you couldn’t even get a cup of coffee’. Pringle Brandon designed the fit-out, such as it is, and the signage was by CSM’s professor of typography Phil Baines. Furniture and equipment came from the school’s former premises. ‘Certainly not,’ Stanton Williams’ marketing and communications manager Meike Stockmann scolds when I ask if the firm designed some of the tables, while Williams looks ruefully at a forlorn bench, seemingly abandoned on one of the bridges crossing the campus’ new central street.

In the education section of Stanton Williams’ website, CSM stands out among other projects, such as the Sainsbury Laboratory (AJ 21.07.11), as one of a kind. It is being marketed as many things, including a campus for an art and design elite and a spearhead for ‘the creative economy’, described by CSM rector Nigel Carrington as ‘the fastest growing sector of the British economy’. Much of the talk at the launch is of investment, turnover and ‘the knowledge economy’ and it’s tempting to dismiss the new CSM as too smart, calm, office-like and sanitised, rather like an academy school. Shouldn’t art schools feel bohemian and slightly dangerous? But it’s a long time since the 1968 Hornsey College of Art protests, and who’s to dictate what all art and design students’ environments ought to be like anyway? ‘We hope our community will really stimulate this area and bring grittiness,’ says CSM head Jane Rapley. With 4,000 students and 1,000 tutors, the campus will also be subject to heavy footfall and a lot of wear and tear, which Stanton Williams has been mindful of.

Born of a 1989 merger between Central School of Art and Design and Saint Martins School of Art, which later absorbed Drama Centre London and the Byam Shaw School of Art, CSM wanted to encourage creativity through interaction between disciplines. This will, of course, continue to happen in refectories, bars and cross-discipline seminars, but Stanton Williams went beyond this by displaying generous workshops behind the glazed walls of the central street, avoiding barriers between zones and providing extensive bookable accommodation. Interaction with the public is promoted by the east-west link at the south end of the campus, which leads to the retail space in the western transit shed.

An alternative reading of that blank canvas analogy puts Stanton Williams on more familiar ground. CSM can be seen as an assemblage of flexible spaces for changing patterns of use, rather than a building that welcomes modifications to its shell and framework. ‘We’re trading with space here,’ says Williams, ‘that’s what we’re good at.’ They have always sought control of the finished artefact, but without deluding themselves that they can determine the way people will use and interpret it. Williams seems to be enjoying sitting back and watching what will happen next. Here, Stanton Williams’ aspirations were completely in line with CSM’s.

‘Staff and students will need time to adapt and confront spaces head on. The really important thing is taking ownership,’ says Williams, observing the way drama students have colonised one of the five-metre wide bridges across the central street, hanging up costumes to dry on its balustrades. ‘It’s a concrete warehouse shell with large floor plates and generous floor to ceiling heights,’ he says, referring to the two new studio buildings inserted between the transit sheds on either side of the ETFE-vaulted central street; a horizontal arrangement which would not have been possible on the tight Holborn site.

Williams admires Cubitt’s Granary building, at once imposing, martial and bland. There are no emphatic rhetorical gestures on its south elevation, and although there’s always a clear distinction between the language of old and new construction, the central street, east-west link, the rooftop terrace and the new concrete and Rodeca facades reinterpret its calmness and strength. Although backdrops for space and daylight, Stanton Williams’ additions also have a silent presence.

Stanton Williams has also let go in their approach to CSM’s detailed design. This is Stanton Williams on war rations, with standard steel sections and no special extrusions. It’s also a building that will get knocked about. Entering the unheated entrance space of the Granary building, you’re struck by its rich colours, raw timber joists, porphyry flooring and the projecting skirting rails of glazed partitions. But in the details of the central street, you initially think you’ve glimpsed Stanton Williams’ characteristic finesse, but in place of reed-like handrails you find heavy balusters with dumpy base plates and industrial-grade nosings.

‘We both love going into factories and seeing things being made, the smell of wood and metal,’ 3 says Stanton. Although their passion for craftsmanship made them an apt choice to design for an institution that can claim William Lethaby as one of its founders, it has been thwarted by cost constraints. This passion found an outlet in their retention of certain features of Cubitt’s buildings, such as pulleys and vents, and the reinstatement of others, such as turntables, that couldn’t be salvaged but are here in abstracted form.

Although this ‘appropriate’ response is a little over-reverential and contrived, on the whole Stanton Williams’ additions distance themselves from the original fabric, while retaining its spirit. Purging all gimmickry, these additions stand back from the college’s activities, leaving staff and students to get on with it. ‘But not in an apologetic way,’ Williams reminds me. Standing in the dramatic, lofty space of the east-west link, it’s hard to disagree.

Former student’s view

As a graduate of Central Saint Martins, I was sad but not entirely surprised to see the gradual selling off of the key famous sites of the college. Our year that graduated in 1997 was a portent of things to come: 100-plus students, and a good handful of them overseas. We were the last year to use the former banana warehouse site on Long Acre in Covent Garden that eventually became an H&M. It was a funny building – lots of quirky spaces off a central concrete staircase – yet somehow it worked as an art facility, and its location was hard to beat.

Fast forward to 2011 – and it’s hard to walk into the new 100-acre, purpose-built site in King’s Cross and not be grudgingly impressed. When you enter the main space, this grand, pre-cast concrete entrance feels more like an art museum than an art college, or a university as they call it now. The central passageway that runs through the building works nicely and there is a good mix of rough and ready finishes, like the 50mm wooden cube flooring on Central Street.

The plywood clad fit-out of the studios are pretty bare at present, although this is probably because they’ve only moved in, and are still getting to know the building. The jewellery studios have a great north view, while most of the spaces currently use their old chairs, and equipment from former sites.

I’m not sure what William Lethaby would make of it, but  as in 1896, these are exciting times to be studying art in London, whether that’s in Charing Cross, Clerkenwell, Covent Garden, or even King’s Cross.
Brad Yendle, AJ art editor

Footnotes

1 The campus will be part of the University of the Arts, comprising Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon College of Art

2 The Scope of Total Architecture, Walter Gropius, MacMillan, 1980

3 Stanton Williams: Volume Irénée Scalbert et al, Black Dog Publishing, London, November 2009, p40 

Credits

Start on site January 2008
Completion April 2011 (excluding fit-out)
Gross internal floor area 40,000m2
Type of procurement Design and Build
Construction cost  £92 million
Cost per square metre £2,300
Site developer and project manager Argent
Tenant University of the Arts London
Architect Stanton Williams Architects
Structural engineer and CDM co-ordinator Scott Wilson
Environmental and M&E engineer Atelier 10
Architectural lighting Spiers + Major
Quantity surveyor/employer’s agent Davis Langdon
Landscape architect Townsend Landscape Architects
Facade consultant Arup Facades Engineering
Main contractor BAM Construction
Average DF for studios (assessed floors) 4.9% – 9.7% (first floor of west block <1.5%)
Building CO2 emission rate 44.45Kg/m2/year
Airtightness 10m3/(m2.h) at 50Pa
Main contractor’s architect BAM Design (new buildings), Weedon Partnership (Granary), Richard Griffiths Architects (conservation)
Main contractor’s structural engineer BAM Design (new buildings), AKS Lister Beare (existing structure)
Main contractor’s M&E engineer BAM Design
Main contractor’s fire consultant AECOM
Main contractor’s acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates
Fit-out contractor Overbury
Interior fit-out architect Pringle Brandon
Energy consumption for space heating 26.06kWh/m²/year
Energy consumption for DHW 1.44kWh/m²/year
Energy consumption for space heating + DHW 27.50kWh/m²/year
Energy consumption for space cooling 30.13kWh/m²/year
Energy consumption for auxiliary 16.54kWh/m²/year
Energy consumption for lighting 41.17kWh/m²/year
Energy consumption for space cooling + auxiliary + lighting 87.84kWh/m²/year
IT and small power equipment energy consumption 22.34kWh/m²/year

 

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