Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

A taste for puzzles: inside the Saw Swee Hock student centre by Tom Nancollas

  • Comment

The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Strangely for its youth, this building looks like it has occupied its Sheffield Street site for most of recorded time. It has the quality of a primitive monument. Its shape, at first difficult to work out, eventually feels pyramidal, cyclopean. The elevations are wrought out of thousands of orange bricks, their textures luckily averting an overly monolithic effect while further contributing to the building’s primitive mystique. Yet look closer. Said bricks are made to hang dizzyingly from oblique angles, their time-worn, humble undertones challenged in a way that also parodies the crystalline geometry of some other contemporary architecture: a satisfyingly contrarian effect. You imagine, with relish, the oaths and curses of the bricklayers when they first saw the blueprints. It is like an edifice designed by a physicist for an Aztec prince (or vice-versa).

Inside, it’s best to start with the lift. The metal box makes a good decompression chamber, quashing the exterior’s hot flush, and is a means of starting the journey at the top. This probably isn’t the intended visitor experience but is a useful route if, like me, you want to get under the building’s skin.

The interior of the top floor is executed in a mixture of materials and colours: large, irregular slabs of cast concrete, thin strips of pale timber, metal panels painted in crimson or yellow hues, hunks of dark red timber. This also goes for the floors below, to which you can add walls of exposed brick, cast concrete stairs and white marble parallelograms - this building never plays it straight - used for flooring the principal circulation spaces. It sounds a nightmarish jumble, but the mix produces a wonderful feeling of serenity; or relief, perhaps, that the combination doesn’t jar. None of the components shout the loudest, they are used in roughly equal proportions and their placement is considered. If the exterior represents a moment of abandon on the part of the architects, the maturer interiors stand for the clear-eyed morning after, a key juxtaposition.

The plan forms of each floor feel like different shapes, with the extent and enclosure of the circulation space constantly morphing; rooms of differing proportions, some lit, some not, beckon through changing apertures off the main core. I only had access to the circulation spaces but the regular spatial change made me feel as though I was walking through a giant puzzle, with components slotting together and apart according to my progress through the building. This feeling was strengthened by the use of the materials cited above: the ability to see the joints of components - such as with the marble parallelograms or the cyclopean slabs of concrete - hints at the possibility of their disassembly. There are no monotone surfaces here, no bleak wastes of carpet, no unimaginative swaths of plaster. In my mind’s eye the different floors of the building, piled vertically in cross-section, became the calmly rotated drums of a combination lock; apt, for every student has a number.

2A taste for puzzles, deliberation, maturity, serenity: these are all fitting attributes for a student centre, especially one with science in its crosshairs. You could say that a gymnastic exterior and meditative interior perfectly captures what student life should be about. Other contrasts are found elsewhere in the building; now and then, the architects respond to the LSE’s academic raison d’être with some counterweights of a primordial nature. A spiral staircase hangs between the 6th and 5th floors; rather than the customary wrought-iron elegance of such a device, we have a bulky concrete form, speckled and ammonitic in aspect, like something mined from under the ocean floor or fractured from a mountainside with blasting-powder. The innate brutalism of such a feature is softened by what feels like a feng shui exactness in its placement, making it a focal point that avoids feuding with its surroundings. Saw Swee Hock’s every crevice has this sureness of hand, a spatial craft clearly produced by much spatial graft.

On the second floor you encounter a large brick drum. Is it a central structural pillar of some kind? The figurative brick heart of a brick building? Is this Saw Swee Hock’s titular navel? Actually the bricks enclose a windowless, circular reflection space, a ‘Faith Centre’, accessed via a spiral recalling the aforementioned staircase at the building’s apex.

This too is a rather primordial feature. It’s like an ancient cell or niche for idolatry; but the many projecting brick ledges, which might have carried tiny effigies, stand bare: an appropriate symbol for Saw Swee Hock’s occupants and the age that begat it. The sheer proliferation of brick throughout this building - glimpsed and encountered here and there - reaches its zenith in the total enclosure of this chamber. Brick fools; it comes to mind as a cheaply plentiful material for building, yet handmade bricks arranged in these impossible forms must make for a pricey piece of architecture. Using the ‘umble brick to make architecture, rather than honest building, starts to feel somehow perverse, knowing, almost too clever. It’s a relief when you encounter the plain concrete of the main staircase, a material to which surgical geometry feels more suited.

Yet somehow it just works. From without, the building felt pyramidal; from within, the refrain was of angular delicacy, primordially punctuated. The feelings it invoked came to the boil when I recalled the old tale about the mystic properties of pyramids. It is said that a blunt razorblade placed inside one will become sharp again. How fitting then that Saw Swee Hock’s form should feel so; the students it houses may or may not come with pre-sharpened minds, but there is no doubt that the building’s spaces and dimensions are effective whetstones, crafted by the architects to provide the optimum conditions for incisive thinking. That fact alone justifies the complexity, the subversion, the puzzlement and mendacious serenity of this structure. Certainly, I spilled from the door feeling serene and somewhat sharpened.

The building is by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects. There are various write-ups in the architectural press.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs