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Hawkins\Brown’s ‘open-minded and open-hearted’ Bartlett revamp

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BUILDING STUDY: This ‘deep retrofit’ of Wates House has doubled its usable space and created a more public-facing building, says Bartlett graduate and founder of Morrow + Lorraine J-J Lorraine 

PROJECT DATA • PLANS

‘Bartlett’, not ‘The Bartlett’ or ‘UCL Bartlett’, never ‘Wates House’ and probably never likely to be ‘22 Gordon Street’ – there is also one at Here East now. Just Bartlett. It doesn’t require the definite article, just as Everest isn’t The Mount Everest or even Mount Everest. Like Peak XV once was to cartographers, Bartlett is dialect for being pre-eminent; world-leading; the best – as voted for every one of the last 13 years by readers of the AJ.

Taking the best and making it better is never going to be easy, but it’s been made a whole lot more probable thanks to the newly refurbished Bartlett by Hawkins\Brown. The beating heart of this bright and vital future is the evanescent, often-ineffable phenomenon known as simply as collaboration.

According to the team, ‘a great four-year partnership’ flourished between the client, UCL, which owns and manages the university estate; the occupant, Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, which inhabits the building; and the architect, Hawkins\Brown, which led the design team and provided the tripartite governance that represented, championed and delivered for their respective constituencies.

My sensory recollection of habitation in old Bartlett is different for each year of my diploma. Year one: darkness and tired legs; our unit occupied a corner of the basement without windows while tutorials were held on the top floor, up and down the blue handrail. Year two was congestion and jeopardy; my board was in a cramped though well-lit corner, but below a lashed-up and overloaded materials store hanging from the slab by some bent wire. Collapse never occurred but always felt possible.

When students and academics return, they will encounter a light-filled, open-minded and open-hearted Bartlett

When students and academics return from their temporary home on Hampstead Road this month, they will encounter a light-filled, open-minded and open-hearted Bartlett. The space available to them is over twice what it was when they left, but an increased size isn’t all they’ll benefit from; the renovation will enrich their tutors potential to educe (related to the Greek notion of educere), to bring out or develop potential.

Bivouacked down Hampstead Road (care of HS2’s derailment of Derwent London’s long-term redevelopment ambitions), the project team left no stone unturned in its odyssey to bring Bartlett home. Their Grand Tour crossed the Western hemisphere, cramming architecture schools’ architecture including those at Yale, Cooper Union, Harvard and AHO in Oslo (referenced in the Nordic Social Democracy-inspired door-cum-store to the academics’ offices), to transplant if not organs and limbs then at least stem cells into the cadaverous, retained concrete frame.

Occasionally architects can display characteristics that don’t paint the profession in the most flattering light: uncaring, unconnected and isolated. For great swathes of the population, they’re baffled by what we do, but more worryingly not remotely fussed about finding out. The Establishment muddles through this quandary trying to patch up the relationship. It’s against this backdrop that Bartlett has poked its head – or rather school director Bob Sheil’s head – above the parapet to ask the question: why are architecture schools not more open to members of the public?

Hawkins/Brown partner Euan MacDonald puts this challenge high on the practice’s agenda. ‘As an institution, it has become better integrated into its context, outward looking and welcoming to the public,’ he says. STAY OUT, fortress-like Wates House has been replaced with a Bartlett that gives over its entire ground floor to public-facing spaces. A prominent new entrance creates an obvious and clear way in, making a better relationship with the street. A new gallery and access to an existing auditorium provide the means to host large public events. A bar is located centrally to serve the numerous seminar spaces, lecture halls and meeting rooms. The architecture feels optimistic, generous and welcoming; even without its rowdy inhabitants it feels convivial and friendly.

Its centrepiece, an exquisitely-crafted black steel stair, riffs on the Morphosis version at Cooper Union

Who cares whether facsimilia exist in the new building; its centrepiece, an exquisitely-crafted black steel stair ‘conceived as a social generator’, riffs on the Morphosis version at the Cooper Union. It is a beautiful move that makes the building legible and pleasurable to use, offering both wonderfully strange and reassuringly familiar views up and down its height. Bartlett had suffered of late a sclerotic feudalism embedded behind the closed doors of the unit caste system. This stair, the hackable spaces that necklace it and the removal of studio doors should provide the necessary disinfectant.

Locating the spaces off the new staircase encourages interaction and communication, underpinning the drive to foster collaboration and shared knowledge – surely the best preparation for a life in practice.

In less assured hands, the old nag that was Wates House would have been taken out and shot. But with a keen eye on environment credentials, Hawkins/Brown, in sync with UCL’s clear ambition to deliver a sustainable estate, chose to retain the concrete frame. In certain besuited echelons of the construction industry, this decision would be said to be ‘triple-bottom line’; ie people, planet, profit or social, environmental, financial. In architecture, it’s called ‘design’.

Retaining the frame derisked the groundworks as inevitably the potential for problems lurks down there. A new-build option, as opposed to the ‘deep retrofit,’ would have taken approximately six months longer to build, and cost an additional £10 million according to the high-level studies undertaken by the consultants at the time.

The buzz and bustle that defines the city also defines this building

The original structure provides the scheme with one of its most charming characteristics. Internally, the old frame is left red-raw and exposed, fragments appear where alumni expect them to – an echo of past all-nighters. The brief called for lots more net useable area; as much as was obtainable, in fact. So around the perimeter a 1.5m-wide extension girdles the post-war ‘T-columns’, bringing the façade up to the property boundary. This means that the building now fills the site footprint above ground.

The raw concrete is contrasted with simply detailed plywood and timber joinery, adding tactile warmth to the interior. The old/new edge is marked in the floor as a material threshold and further elucidated by a series of sliding/moveable walls creating double-sided pin-up space.

Hawkins/Brown’s renovation optimises what is a constrained, city-centre site, adding a fifth and sixth floor as well as a full-height extension to the south. These, combined with the relocation of other uses, have more than doubled the usable area available to the school on the site.

In his discourse on the city contained in Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas realises that ‘the culture of congestion’ is a cure as opposed to a malady. The buzz and bustle that defines the city also defines this building. It transacts with London, in particular Bloomsbury. Its base is given over to huge windows, affording uninterrupted views in and out; learning turned leisure and back again. The widened pavements feel urban again, the tourniquet concrete plinth broken up to release the flows around Bartlett’s edges.

On every floor and from every side, light hitting London bounces into the building, rendering views of tiled Georgian rooftops and chemically-flued Brutalist neighbours. Pleasingly, the new building’s diagram can be described by a few flicks of a fat-nibbed pen; public base, tri-pod of social space and circulation with an eyrie on top. Napkin architecture and its wobbly-lined progeny can rebound when the complexities of real life intervene. Yet credit to the Hawkins/Brown team; the rigour and clarity of the plan and section delight, and bring a real sense of meaning to the brokerage between outside and inside, views in and out. Bartlett’s’ BMI score is healthy; height and weight where one would want them, comfortable in its own 70mm-thick waterstruck brick skin and surrounded by a crowd of neighbours who also fit their clothes well.

I recall my time at Bartlett fondly; I don’t, however, miss the chronic lack of space, particularly in the studios, which were cramped, dewy and dimly lit. The new Bartlett is said to be ‘lean and hardworking’, a description most acutely evident in the studio space, which is open plan and naturally lit.

The desks, however, feel tight at 1,050mm x 850mm and certainly not large enough to accommodate too much creative messiness. The challenge of fitting in 850 students, each with their own desk space, leads to a density in the studios of one student per 3m², which is lower than most architects’ studios. But while these studios may be densely packed, leading off them are large unprogrammed spaces available for appropriation in whichever way students deem fit. These spaces balance out the density of the studios and provide a place for creativity, experimentation and testing. They are spacious and robust; a blank canvas for building large models, making huge drawings or setting up a makeshift screening room.

The computer studio and the Friends Room – a place for visiting academics, alumni and benefactors – both suffer spatially from the decision to deploy a multi-service chilled beam solution throughout the building.

Bartlett in my time (1997-1999) was esoteric, anarchic, messy, chaotic, volcanic and exuberant. Hawkins/Brown’s scheme contains none of these characteristics, opting rather to encourage, facilitate and enable them through the transformational act of mixing space, light and material in impeccable proportions. Only one question remains: will the students be truly allowed to take it back as their own?

Bartlett is now active, working and fully-utilised 12 months a year, appealing to a global market of students, summer-schoolers, academics, and archi-lovers, all enjoying an astonishing breadth and depth of programmes. It’s a very competitive market, and a potentially lucrative one too: UCL has an annual turnover of £1.5 billion.

The renovation has to cater for all these groups, which is perhaps why the internal finishes exude the luxury of rough materials – the craft of making utilitarian surfaces look decorative. The interior has to work very hard to be robust, flexible, cost-driven and functional. Yet certain choices have had to be made about brand Bartlett: the vintage filament Modern Scandinavian design fittings that hang in the lobby, the aluminium-chic pendants in the studios and recherché choice of kee-klamp for the studio furniture. These feel slightly self-sacrificing, a consequence maybe of trying a bit too hard to appeal to everyone rather than the core constituents.

These rare moments of artifice will, no doubt, be accidentally mullered by the first batch of over-enthusiastic year-one students carrying lengths of four-by-two into their studios to make deployable thingees. They’ll get replaced by something proper, long-lasting and robust, much like what happened to old Bartlett.

Bartlett School of Architecture by Hawkins\Brown

Bartlett School of Architecture by Hawkins\Brown

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Plans

Basement plan

Basement floor plan

Basement floor plan

Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

First floor, Second floor, third, fourth floor plans

First floor plan

First floor plan

Fifth floor plan

Fifth floor plan

Fifth floor plan

Sixth floor plan

Sixth floor plan

Sixth floor plan

Bartlett School of Architecture by Hawkins\Brown

Bartlett School of Architecture by Hawkins\Brown

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Project data

Client UCL Estates working with the Bartlett School of Architecture
Architect Hawkins\Brown
Main contractor Gilbert Ash
Structural engineer Curtins Consulting
Structural engineer (staircase) Smiths & Wallwork
MEP consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Aecom
Acoustic consultant Buro Happold
Landscape architect BD Landscape
Sustainability consultant Expedition engineering
Clerk of works John Burke Associates
Planning consultant Deloitte
Fire engineer Buro Happold
Project manager Mace
Principal designer Hawkins\Brown
Principal design adviser Turner & Townsend
Approved building inspector MLM
Start on site December 2014
Completion December 2016
Gross internal floor area 8,500m2
Form of contract or procurement route Single-stage Design and Build
Construction cost £22 million
Construction cost per m2 £2,600
CAD software used Vectorworks

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It looks spiffing I must say. I moved into the original brand new Wates House in 1975 as part of a small research unit. I loved the light and the clean white walls after the pokiness of our georgian square eyrie. As soon as the students moved in they covered every surface they could reach, especially in the stair wells, with huge grafitti. I still can't decide whether it was an improvement or not.

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