Owen Pritchard discovers a hardworking building that has been transformed with a keen eye for detail
Commercial Road is an architectural zoo. There is an astonishing amount of work going on: hulking great towers of questionable quality rise up alongside the shabby brick buildings this part of east London is famous for. Nestled among this chaos is the former St George’s Brewery, a pile of listed Victorian brick that was chosen by Hult – an international business school founded in Boston in 1964 – to be the site of its first UK undergraduate campus.
After a short competition process in summer 2013, Sergison Bates was appointed to deliver a 4,300m² multipurpose education space that blended the heritage of the site with the pedagogic approach of the institution. The appeal of this brief may have been tempered by one key fact: the students would be enrolling just a year later in September 2014.
Projects like this usually undergo a process of reduction and removal, before the architect decides how to transform the spaces. In this case Sergison Bates had neither the time nor the budget for such luxuries. Instead, the architect treated the structures as found objects and sought to make the most of the spaces provided. The practice had, as part of the competition process, completed a forensic exercise into what the original, Grade II-listed, brewery spaces offered. It created a document that mapped the scale, materials and atmosphere in each room and then sought to organise the building into a campus that fully exploited the existing fabric and was fit for training the business tycoons of the future.
The site, where the City meets the East End, is at the centre of a clash of business and social cultures. The Hult will educate global and local entrepreneurs who will work in everything from international corporate giants to small-scale startups. These tensions, and the fact that Hult did not want to be seen as a global brand, are reflected in the interventions Sergison Bates has made.
The historic building had been extended with a three-storey annex, which consumed the shop fronts along the road. Thrusting through the centre of the building, butted up against the old brewery and top-lit by a giant skylight, an enormous great asymmetrical staircase ricochets upwards, with oversized landings that become places to meet, gossip and flirt. The steel construction is finished in limewashed plywood. It’s pleasingly chunky and substantial; a counterpoint to the rugged brick of the brewery wall and the perfunctory materials of the later extension. This sculptural gesture enforces the connections between spaces and brings you close to the fabric of the listed building. Circulation spaces buzz with the excited chatter of the students, and the architect has made the most of residual spaces that cannot serve any practical purpose, placing benches and lighting into nooks and corners to create informal hangouts.
The honesty and rawness of Sergison Bates’ interventions have led to a knockabout and flexible campus
Inside the older building, Sergison Bates has implemented its Multispace concept previously used at its Novartis Campus in Shanghai. In essence it is the simple layering of formal study spaces and common and lounging areas. The tall rooms, structured by the rhythm of cast-iron columns, have been divided into areas where focused study can take place in various pods and vitrines – rooms within rooms.
The architect has, where possible, celebrated the existing building’s materiality – the timber boarded floors, brick walls and cast-iron structure are retained and occasionally painted with a simple pattern or bathed in coloured light to define areas for different purposes.
All of the classrooms are found within the newer building, which flanks Commercial Road, while the old brewery contains the library, admin and study spaces. The teaching units are heavily insulated to ensure the noise of the central circulation spaces doesn’t disturb the classes. The classrooms are unexpectedly big, and make sense of the clumsy footprint. Inside, each space faces a whiteboard attached to a batten-and-ply frame, while above, the heft of the air conditioning units is left exposed – each room can be individually controlled. Despite their appearance, the classrooms house state-of-the-art learning technology and high-spec audio-visual equipment.
The limewashed timber panelling that forms the structure of all the teaching spaces, the stairway and the smaller rooms scattered throughout the building, elevates what has become a familiar, hackneyed, cheap building material to something more considered. It will scuff, but efforts have been made to add a sense of endeavour and care. Careful use of colour and acoustic fabric complements the carpentry, which uses beads, studs and perforation to make each unit individual, and more engaging than might be expected on a low-budget solution.
Stephen Bates cites the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, by Lacaton & Vassal as an influence. The Hult might not have such a grand building to play about with, but the comparison of rationale is fair. The honesty and rawness of Sergison Bates’ interventions have led to a knockabout and flexible campus that is skilfully detailed. Bates also lets slip that, although this type of work might be unexpected from the practice, it is a continuation of a process that started more than 15 years ago with the 1997 studio building for Cartlidge Levene in Clerkenwell. A similar tactic was used on a cultural project in Brussels that never got off the drawing board.
The painstaking examination of the existing spaces and urban context has allowed Sergison Bates to act decisively and effectively. This is a sharp response to a site that had hidden its charm. This business school will breathe life into a rapidly changing corner of Whitechapel, which is undergoing a very public identity crisis. As Peter Ruback noted in his essay ‘Balanced and Integrated’ in the book Kaleidoscope City, ‘we need to experience well-looked after, good ordinary buildings; houses, churches, offices as well as the exceptional buildings vaut le voyage. London’s heritage is not to be experienced as a museum, but as a panorama of architectural and other history’.
Sergison Bates has understood the ordinary, hardworking fabric of the brewery building and overlayed a programme that is transformative while respectful to its existing qualities. The Hult is delivered using tactics that are familiar in projects by a younger, less-established generation of architects – the plywood and pastel brigade who are just about to embark on a more serious period of production. But Sergison Bates has set a benchmark that uses ‘cheap’ materials with a keen eye for detail and craft. The experience is richer for it.
The brief required the integration of an east London Grade II-listed Victorian brewery of exceptional character with a new 37,000m2 commercial structure to create an undergraduate business school with an extensive frontage on Commercial Road.
The project was to be in keeping with the school’s young, entrepreneurial, technologically savvy students aged 17-24, providing a mixture of classroom sizes and flexible seating styles, study areas, meeting rooms, faculty and administrative offices, and the option of a café/bar space.
The building offered the opportunity to deliver a warehouse-like, industrial-style modern campus, which draws on the building’s history, local heritage and the tech and media outfits found in nearby Shoreditch and Spitalfields.
Stephen Bates, senior partner, Sergison Bates
A new stair is inserted into the space of the old light well, opening up spatial connections between the floorplates. Deliberately generous, it creates an opportunity for chance encounters, adjusting and extending to create spaces to pause and meet. To accommodate this flexibility and generosity, cranked steel stringer beams were threaded into the void to support the stair.
Like a big piece of furniture, the stair is evidently put together – carpentry is joined and sections are assembled in a way that gives the stair its tectonic character. Timber studs are housed over steel fin uprights, plywood sheets are placed inside and span between these studs, and cover beads are placed over the joints between boards. A shaped cap is placed over all of these elements, bringing the pieces together and rigidly connecting them.
The steel stringers of the staircase before cladding
The timber’s material presence is heightened by the application of a subtle lime wash, blending together these various elements, softening and unifying them, and in doing so, creating an equivalence between them and the materials of the existing building: painted brick, lime-washed timber and unsealed floors.
NB The working detail includes a handrail (15) that was installed after the photography was completed – technical editor
Stephen Bates, senior partner, Sergison Bates
The former St George’s Brewery, on Commercial Road in Aldgate East, a historic landmark from the Victorian era, was identified as an exciting location for Hult’s first UK undergraduate campus.
The Grade II-listed brick building had recently been extended with an open concrete-framed shell, generating a rich mixture of spatial characters. Our ambition was to emphasise and enhance their character, drawing attention to ceiling height differences, column sizes and existing surfaces, and to organise the campus so that students and staff would come into contact with a variety of spaces throughout the day.
The plan was organised by ideas of informal learning, with lots of break-out space to promote collaborative working, study spaces for individual work and classrooms that have the atmosphere of found spaces.
The generous landings of the stairway offer further places to gather
Key to this organisation was the insertion of a generously scaled, new staircase. This is a striking, sculptural wooden element, which provides physical connection and visual links across and between the floorplates.
The material language of timber carpentry extends from the staircase to all other insertions within the existing fabric. Washed in a lime coating and enriched with beads, studs and perforations, the elements are given a visual density and tonal patina that resonates with the fabric of the existing building. Within the newer, concrete-framed building, the timber insertions take the form of full-height walls that create acoustically sealed lecture rooms.
Within the old brick spaces a number of smaller rooms were created. Conceived as large, free-standing elements for meetings and private study, they echo the large brewing vats and tuns that once occupied the building. In the spaces between, intimate settings are created by the arrangement of modern furniture pieces and design classics. Overhead services are exposed and carefully co-ordinated and the overall atmosphere is further enhanced by graphic installations.
Stephen Bates, senior partner, Sergison Bates