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Sheffield's Jessop West by Sauerbruch Hutton and RMJM

The ingenious plan of Sauerbruch Hutton and RMJM’s university building shelters this corner of Sheffield with ‘protective tentacles’, writes Kieran Long

Sheffield University straddles a dual-carriageway ring road of the kind that destroyed the coherence of city-centre edges across the UK in the 1960s. To the west of Upper Hanover Street and up Brook Hill is Firth Court, the historic main building of the university, completed the year it received its charter in 1905. A little down the hill is one of the most spectacular modern university buildings in the country - the confident and starkly beautiful Arts Tower, a 78m-high Miesian slab by GMW, completed in 1965.

Until recently, this cluster of arts and humanities at the top of the hill was removed from the university’s science and engineering disciplines at the bottom, which are situated around the Georgiana of the Sir Frederick Mappin Building on the east side of campus. But the university has begun to fill in the gaps, first with a library by RMJM (the Information Commons building), facing the Brook Hill roundabout, and now, right across the road, a humanities building by Berlin-based, Anglo-German practice Sauerbruch Hutton in collaboration with RMJM.

Jessop West

Sauerbruch Hutton won the competition for the so-called Jessop West site in 2005 and, when asked to team up with a practice from the university’s framework, chose RMJM. The collaboration has been a fruitful one, but the building is still signature Sauerbruch Hutton. The facade is a dead giveaway, with a repeating geometrical pattern differentiated only by the use of compelling colour, from pinks and reds to greens. Its complex relationship with the street and the diverse conditions that surround it, however, make it a building with much more than a pretty skin.

The building is signature Sauerbruch Hutton - the facade is a dead giveaway

Jessop West was originally conceived to house offices for the university’s English, history and law departments; the three subjects generating the three-winged arrangement of the building. Later, law was replaced by modern languages as the tenant for the highest wing. The programme was in some ways uninspiring, with a requirement for lots of cellular offices. Sauerbruch Hutton tried to argue for open-plan working, but lost - every university architect I have written about has found the same immovable requirement for small, cell-like offices among academics.

The practice did win the argument about giving the ground floor of the building substantially over to public use, with a café on the corner of Leavygreave Road and Upper Hanover Street and another space on Leavygreave - although practice partner Louisa Hutton is unsure about what the final use of this gallery-like space will be. A route through the building emerges into a new, sheltered public space between Jessop West, the Victorian Jessop Hospital and the Sheffield Bioincubator, a pretty ordinary effort by Bond Bryan Partnership that defines the northern edge of the site.

Sauerbruch Hutton describes the evolution of the masterplan in the context of a much larger vision for the whole Jessop Hospital site, which it was asked to create for the university in 2005. Although the majority of this strategy now looks unlikely to happen, the built remnant shows what a powerful urban idea it was.

The need to define a strong edge to busy Upper Hanover Street generated a perimeter block arrangement, deformed in the middle to signal an entrance. There was a desire from the university to pedestrianise Leavygreave Road to create a vital spine through the university quarter. The building supports this idea with a semicircular entrance court with trees and seats for the café. To the east of the building is an intimate piazza, also shaded by trees and enlivened by the sounds of the music department, which occupies the former hospital.

A perimeter block arrangement is deformed in the middle to signal an entrance

The next layer of the urban strategy was to open up routes across the site. A small gap between the Bioincubator and Jessop West allows students to cross the site from north to south, while still sheltering the new public space from the busy Broad Lane to the north. The building’s reception is at the apex of the three wings, and the plan is cut in two places to allow this reception area to be a place of passage, as well as entrance and meeting. Each wing is cranked in plan and this makes the building feel very sheltering, like a benign octopus reaching its protective tentacles around the intimately scaled spaces.

The ingenuity of the site’s planning continues inside. Cranks in the plan define breakout spaces or more convivial areas where academics emerging from their cells can meet and talk. Together with the glass windows in the cell doors, the tapering corridors are the most pleasant double-loaded spaces I have ever been in. At the end of each arm are more meeting areas and teaching rooms.

The building is like a benign octopus reaching its protective tentacles around the intimate spaces

Central spaces on each floor are connected with each other and the ground by bloid-shaped openings cut into the slabs. These attractive, rounded voids will have to be glazed in places for fire-protection, but it does add a modest drama to the entrance sequence of the building. As you ascend the stairs, you are looking out on the newly created public space behind the building, making it feel even more cloister-like in terms of typology.

My only reservation, as with nearly all of Sauerbruch Hutton’s work, is that its interest in decoration weirdly results in a lack of differentiation or hierarchy in the visual arrangement of its buildings. While this is an elegantly and intensely planned building with a powerful logic, there’s no real attempt to use decoration to define different faces of the building or express any hierarchy between them. It’s just pattern and colour, which doesn’t add very much to the architecture, however attractive it is.

But it must be said that I find the selection of colours on this building very beautiful. The unlikely combination of pale pink and green is seductive on the Upper Hanover Street facade, and the reference to the pink sign of the Henderson’s Relish factory across Leavygreave Road is an appropriate contextual touch. I just wish that Sauerbruch Hutton’s decorative virtuosity meant more than some observed colours from the surroundings arranged into an attractive tiled pattern.

The architect’s environmental strategy is very responsible. The building is completely passively ventilated, and Sauerbruch Hutton designed a system of perforations (visible on the steel panels of the facade) that allow air into the building at low level, through an acoustic labyrinth, and into each office. The air is also vented through the facade at high level.

The facade system is beautifully made, and it will surprise none of you that it took a German facade subcontractor - Schneider - to achieve it. It is triple glazed, but every office has an openable window. Dana Raydan, project architect for RMJM, says: ‘It was remarkable dealing with the facade contractor. They worked with such precision and such a meticulous approach that’s not so common in the UK.’ Despite being a design and build project, the architect found that the only organisation which could build it for the price was Schneider.

Central spaces on each floor are connected by bloid-shaped openings cut into the slabs

The relationship between the two architects seems to have been a happy one. Although Sauerbruch Hutton only designed the project up to Stage C, RMJM kept the firm on as a subconsultant for the facade, meaning it had an ongoing watching brief as RMJM built the building. It is such a pleasure to see an executive architect and design architect so clearly full of mutual respect as Hutton and Raydan.

Interior voids

The voids create connections between floors and flood the space with light.

The result is one of the best new buildings in Sheffield for many a year; at least since Pringle Richards Sharratt’s Millennium Galleries, completed in 2002. It’s also a marker of what can be achieved while navigating public procurement, framework agreements, design and build contracts and the rest of it. Hutton says that many supporters of the project also deserve credit - Jeremy Till, former professor at Sheffield School of Architecture, was a particular advocate of the scheme in his role on the Project Executive Group.

This subtly sustainable building is a great asset to Sheffield. That collaboration such as this can produce a high-quality public building on a reasonable budget gives one faith in the future of our cities and educational institutions.

Photography by Jan Bitter

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