MAKING AN ENTRANCE
As a student, John Pardey was sent to Coventry, in both senses of the term. He discovered Coventry Cathedral, which became a favourite building. He confessed to tutors this heresy and for some of them he became an outcast, beyond the accepted Modernist canon of the time. Later, having left working as an architect in cities and set up a practice in his beloved New Forest, he was to renovate and extend Basil Spence's home of 1961 at Beaulieu (AJ 28.9.00). A response to site and existing building, a formality of symmetry and contradiction, and a quiet but intense expression of materials are all continuing themes of this and later Pardey houses, such as Sellers House (AJ 28.8.03) and Duckett House (AJ 22.7.04).
The project for the University of Sussex, at Falmer, above Brighton, continues several of these threads, and is centred on the campus laid out by Spence in the 1960s, one of the most Ivy League of British campuses.
Pardey's project involves a set of domestic-scale pavilions that must complement Spence yet be architecturally distinct.
The campus has the largest collection of listed Modern buildings in Britain, all by Spence; this was a high point and the postSpence buildings do not share the original strength of character, though many are by Spence's office. Some are more disappointing than others.
In taking on this project in 2002, John Pardey Architects stepped into an education world where agendas were changing, where the recently appointed estates manager came from a background of cost-minimising D&B, whereas the academic leadership was coming to value the campus' built form and to see it as an important way of attracting staff and students. After some falling out, the architect has been dealing directly with the dean of the first building school, the Sussex Institute.
The bigger picture, part of the university's repositioning itself on the world stage, has been to consolidate from 22 departments into five schools and, as part of that, to provide each with a new entrance on this dispersed campus; a focus for visitors, students, potential students and other information-seekers.
Rationalising the campus' proliferation of cafés is a related ambition. Currently, most departments have their own receptions, often ad hoc and unsympathetic insertions of desks or pods with an accumulated clutter of signage, notice boards, vending machines and oddments of furniture.
Pardey won the commission to design the five school entrances plus a café/social/exhibition space in the courtyard of the Pevensey building. This latter and two of the buildings that are to have new entrances are Spence's own, listed Grade II*. The programme of constructing the six buildings has slowed for financial reasons; the Sussex Institute is now completed, others are expected to be restarted later in this financial year.
Here, Pardey sees Spence as being very much influenced by Corbusier's Maisons Jaoul and by Kahn in the massing and solidity of concrete-framed masonry and the vaulted ceilings. The architect has developed a language for the new entrances, respectful yet distinct from Spence, that will be able to be read also as a set of nodes across the campus in its own right, part of the university's emerging 'brand'. The architect's formality produces a rhythmic continuity, yet contrasts lightness with what Pardey describes as Spence's 'heavy, monumental, earthbound language'. Indeed, one of CABE's reactions to these floating interventions was their potential reversibility, something that neither the client nor architect had considered. The architect's language of lightness is of metal and glass, with roofs folding into walls, in part floating, supported by detached slender steel columns, accompanied in some cases by canopied entrances and routes, and sheer glazed walls with solid ventilation panels.
For the Sussex Institute (a postgraduate school), the entrance pavilion sits at one end of a Spence office building, at an existing end-entrance that has itself been opened up to improve connection. An aluminiumclad folded plane wraps the roof and wall, stopping short of the ground with a band of glazing, preserving lightness (see Working Detail, p36-37). Very slender columns to an overhang on the main approach side create a portico effect to the glazed wall behind, where the symmetry is then broken with a two-storey entrance to the right (with a firstfloor bridge), and to the left an opaque wall with sculptural cantilevered stair to the firstfloor offices of the dean and his PA. This wall is lit pink at night; each school has its own colour, which extends to stationery and other 'corporate' items. Night-time appearance was a key design issue, as the entrances are open 24 hours a day. This entrance in particular has an elevated position, making it a beacon on the campus.
The new pavilion ties into the Spence language, particularly with the slatted timber to the soffit and end-wall lining, the exposing of the end wall of the existing building within the entrance and a fin wall of appropriately boardmarked concrete slicing through the glazed facade. (Cedar has become common today; the cedar precedent here is the listed buildings and indeed Spence's own 1961 house. ) Detailing is simple but refined; after arguments, money was spent on a stone floor - a small area but an element that helps set the tone of quality.
On the other side of the entrance pavilion is a softer, boarded facade. From this a new covered way fronts two existing buildings at right angles, which combine with the entrance building to create a courtyard. Immediately inside the nearer of these two existing buildings, opening onto the courtyard, is a refurbished and enlarged café, helping to make this location a focus for the school.
Pardey is not totally seduced by Spence;
certainly appreciative of Spence's poetic approach, Pardey's Modernist education goes deep enough for him to draw attention to Spence's massive brick piers as we walk around the campus, pointing out that the monumental aesthetic statement is, structurally, only a cover to a concrete frame.
Spence's monumentality is not oppressive, scattered as it is across the open parkland setting, but nor is it particularly welcoming.
That is something Pardey has achieved for the Sussex Institute and looks set to do for the other university schools.