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Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

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Peter Clegg’s new Arts Centre for Bath University delivers admirable performance spaces in an unavoidably awkward shape – and on a tight budget

PROJECT DATA • PLANS • SECTIONS

Two buildings at the University of Bath summarise the stark change in the development and architectural strategies of the majority of Britain’s campuses since the 1960s. The buildings are Peter and Alison Smithson’s 1969 Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering and, 150m away, the new Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. 

The former, at the eastern edge of the original 60ha campus masterplanned by RMJM in 1965, is a conclusive, unchangeable cast concrete structure with cranked segmentation and circulation as delightful riddle. The Edge is a lightweight steel-framed structure on a roughly triangular fag-end site whose sharp end slides up against the Smithsons’ peculiarly stolid 1990 Arts Theatre – the final ‘tassel’, as they put it, on the edge of the campus ‘mat’. 

Half a century ago, the construction of seven new universities, including the reinvention of Bristol’s College of Advanced Technology as Bath University of Technology in 1966, was essentially about designing new kinds of educational engine-blocks. RMJM’s scheme extruded a more or less continuous megatructure of CLASP buildings keyed into a central east-west axis, with a Colin Buchanan-inspired service road under the concrete deck; Cumbernauld-on-Avon. 

Today, the east end of the campus is barnacled with academic and residential buildings whose architecture tends to feature cheerfully tweaked or coloured facades, which presumably helped Bath to win the 2015 Times Higher Education Best Student Experience award. 

These buildings embody the imperative scramble by most universities to market academic and social offers equally: new-build uni-parts driven by the financial and academic need to convince as many students and postgrads as possible that their plump tuition fees would be better (and more comfortably) spent on a particular university. The Edge introduces a new hybrid to Bath’s campus: an academic-cum-public facility designed to promote the arts at a university known, historically, for scientific studies. The current vice-chancellor is the eminent social scientist, Glynis Breakwell. 

The young Peter Clegg taught alongside Peter Smithson at Bath, and he must have felt some duty of care when his practice was commissioned to design the Edge. Its wedge-like form is not a reference to the brilliantly skewed grid of the Department of Architecture and Engineering, but is nevertheless a refreshingly literal acute accent among the more standard elevations and rooflines around it. 

The master-apprentice relationship between Smithson and Clegg does have a fleeting resonance, because everything about the Edge – site, programme, construction, dual academic and public access, the presence of a faintly notable existing building – has the feel of a student project. Not the finished building, of course, but as exactly the kind of project that Clegg might have set for his own students. The design is as thoughtful as it can be, and essentially pragmatic: this was a £7.5 million construction that delivered just over 3,000m² of floorspace, and it was subject to the usual Design and Build erosions of detail. 

Despite that, the design has produced some particularly fine volumes, articulated internal falls of natural light effectively, and engendered a convivial atmosphere in exactly the kind of building form that architects (and any shrewd student) would normally avoid like the plague. The site has been a bugbear since David Morley produced the first arts centre scheme 16 years ago; six years later, MUMA spent two years developing a scheme which was shelved. 

Massing and shaping were fundamental architectural issues for Clegg, and generated 16 MDF-and-foam massing study models to establish how to maximise the internal programme without belittling the Arts Theatre. The test forms included stepped blocks, truncated wedges, and three wedges with a sliver sliced off the blunt end. Some touched the Arts Theatre, others were stand-offish. 

The chosen form was perhaps the most obvious: a wedge whose slope tapers to its pointed end, which abuts the north side of the Arts Theatre. The form met the design brief’s specific demand for an unusual-looking building that doesn’t upstage or belittle the Arts Theatre. Not that there’s much to upstage – the theatre has too few seats and, despite FCBS lining the internal blockwork walls with black MDF panels, very little atmosphere. 

The wedge form meant that light, clarity of circulation and as much decompression as possible were key issues. An atrium, central in the plan, punches up through two and a half levels to a glazed quadrilateral rooflight; two other smaller rooflights bring light into a smaller secondary atrium closer to the theatre and into a top-floor plant room. 

On the ground floor three art galleries are ranged along the southern edge of the plan. The biggest is an excellent double-height volume with natural light reflected from mirror-glass at the top of a slot next to a line of north-facing glazing. Another double-height volume at the east end of the ground floor contains a performance studio. The café and reception area around the base of the atrium are entered from the south or north sides of the building, on a diagonal where the Edge pivots into the Arts Theatre. 

The first-floor accommodation ‘doughnuts’ around the atrium void and is for Bath’s business studies students – a deliberately experimental admixture to the arts milieu, specified by Breakwell. 

On the second floor, partly under the slope of the roof, is a substantial studio space, rising angularly to double height, with natural light coming in through a glazed slit along the roof edge. There is also a substantial performance space and admin area around three sides of the atrium. And on the top floor at the highest eastern edge of the wedge is a superb music and dance performance space, with long views over Claverton Down and the more distant countryside. 

Apart from contriving admirable volumes within an unavoidably awkward envelope, Peter Clegg and his project architects, Kirsten Williams and Nathan Ovens, have also achieved something notable in terms of mediating the potentially clunky 3D qualities of the wedge. Considerable care was taken with the detailing of the anodised aluminium skin of the building, which has both finely corrugated and perforated sections. This creates an unexpectedly refined surface and a significant softening of the form as a whole. 

There was, alas, no significant softening of the D&B demands concerning a key element that would have grounded the building in a much more architecturally satisfying way. Clegg’s design included an exposed cast concrete base and entrance gullets for the building. Peter Smithson would have thought more highly of that than the dour D&B blockwork that replaced it.

Site plan

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Site plan

Ground floor plan

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Ground floor plan

Second floor plan

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Second floor plan

Section A-A

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Section A-A

Section B-B

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Section B-B

Project data

Location Bath
Type of project higher education
Client University of Bath
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Structural engineer Mann Williams
M&E consultant Hoare Lea & Partners
Quantity surveyor Gleeds
CDM Damrel & Associates 
Lighting consultant Hoare Lea & Partners
Main contractor Bouygues Leadbitter
Funding University of Bath
Appointment Invited competition
Tender date October 2011
Start on site date October 2013
Completion date February 2015
Contract duration 3 years 
Gross internal floor area 3,848m²
Form of contract and/or procurement Design and Build with bespoke contract
Construction value £6,340,000
Project value £7,500,000

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Edge Centre for the Arts by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Source: Tim Crocker

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