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Jubilee Campus, Nottingham by Make

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Make struggles to reconcile surface glamour with enduring architecture at Jubilee Campus, its first significant project.

Make might seem an unusual choice to masterplan the expansion of the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus and design new three buildings for it, being a young-ish practice with no significant completed projects. To date, the firm’s completed buildings include Dartford Judo Centre (2006), the St Paul’s Cathedral Information Centre (2007), and the renovation of Marks and Spencer’s former headquarters at 55 Baker Street, London (2008).

Make, however, has some serious previous: practice founder Ken Shuttleworth is widely credited as having originated the design of 30 St Mary Axe (the ‘Gherkin’) in the City of London before departing his senior role at Foster + Partners. The question that has remained unanswered since Make’s formation in 2004 is whether the engineered precision synonymous with Foster’s name has transferred to the work of the new practice, or whether an entirely different, genuinely distinctive architecture will emerge from Shuttleworth and his now 100-strong team.

As part of its expansion, the University of Nottingham wanted to create distinctive images of the institution’s modernity, symbols that could feature strongly on prospectuses and other marketing material. It is in this context that Make’s buildings should be considered. With 35,000 staff and students spread over four campuses in its home city, and with other campuses in China and Malaysia, the University of Nottingham is ranked fifth in the table of UK universities for its number of overseas students. The expansion of its Jubilee Campus is primarily aimed at attracting top-flight staff, students and investment from this global market.

The campus sits on land previously occupied by Raleigh’s bicycle factory, once one of the largest in the world. The university acquired the 7.5ha site in 1999 and engaged Hopkins Architects to deliver a masterplan and a number of relatively low-rise, timber-clad buildings. Hopkins’ masterplan comprised a subtle grid-iron arrangement running north-south against a background of small man-made lakes. But not all of it was implemented, and in the second major stage of the site’s development the university commissioned another masterplan, this time by Make. The new layout, which was granted outline planning permission in 2005, is substantially different from the collegiate orthodoxy of its predecessor, and now that its three key buildings - International House, the Amenity building and the Gateway - are complete, the contrast is clear.

Make’s masterplan reorientates the site layout from north-south to west-east. The rationale for this radical change in direction is unclear, but the design statement submitted with the original planning application suggests it is part of a grander ambition to open up the campus to the surrounding urban environment. The adjacent neighbourhood consists of gritty, two-storey, brick Victorian terraces, which were once working-class dormitories for the bicycle works and are now home to students. Make’s planned collision of the Jubilee Campus with this Coronation Street-like world across the nearby River Leen could be viewed as advance notice of the terraces’ eventual incorporation into the campus enclave.

The practice’s layout drawings show International House, the Amenity building and the Gateway fanning out from a seemingly arbitrary centrepoint somewhere beyond the far side of the southernmost lake. This has something of the dippiness of a student design project; it’s hard to argue for or against, since it has no visible physical presence in the resulting plan.

The strongest defining aspect of the masterplan is the lateral insertion of a ‘boulevard’ - a pedestrian and cycle route for students from the area of terraced housing to the east and beyond the river. In reality, the work to extend the route over the river and across the railway yard has not begun; the grand avenue currently has neither beginning nor end, and no defining destination point. A future fountain in the lake will mark the westerly conclusion of the route, but to the east, it arrives perpendicular to the humdrum terraced housing. Perhaps another artwork will be introduced here to complement the 60m-high filigree of steel that struggles to impress under its grandiose title, Aspire. This elongated metal doily sits at the centre of the masterplan, functioning as a visual focus rather than an organising element for the overall scheme, but its braggadocio is all too clearly highlighted in its vapid moniker.

Make’s preliminary design statement also feels a tad thin; it takes a leap of imagination to recognise its notion of ‘geological strata’ erupting through the earth’s surface, leaving behind two oddly skewed forms, in the striations of the multicoloured terracotta cladding of the Amenity building and International House. The banded elevations are supposed to reference Nottingham’s brick-built environment, but this is also a stretch. With grey metal-clad roofs that loom large along the full length of both International House and the Amenity building, the over-riding image is oddly naval.

According to project architect David Patterson, ‘we designed the buildings’ skin first and worked our way inside’. As a result, formal preoccupations took primacy over the internal planning and sustainability. While the latter is extensively addressed in the project’s design report, the nagging suspicion remains that not all of the aspirations or assumptions made there - the use of renewable energy sources and natural ventilation, for example - will necessarily stand up to the scrutiny of post-occupancy analysis. The angles, positioning and massing of the buildings has been extensively explored through a large number of physical models and computer visualisations. The production drawings were all delivered in 3D to facilitate the input from fellow consultants on the project - a factor less well received by the contractor, whose preference was for conventional 2D information.

International House has a main entrance in its east end and a secondary, axially opposite and supposedly equal set of doors in its western front. When accessed from this ‘wrong’ end, the visitor is immediately faced with a blank wall. Corridors are set to the left and right but offer no route to any major spaces - because there are none. The university’s desire for flexibility has resulted in a series of dividing walls that have produced a deep, cellular plan. The relationship of these walls to fenestration is problematic. The bunk-bedded, deep-set banding - essential to the building’s external expression and its daylighting strategy - seems, if not quite arbitrary, to be uncomfortably predicated on little more than the hierarchies of institutional space allocation. As such, it is unlikely to remain fixed.

Like International House and the Amenity building, the Gateway’s external form is its defining aspect. In contrast to the multi-coloured terracotta tiles of its two big brothers, the Gateway is precision-clad with galvanized zinc shingles, its head connected to its body by a road-bridging ‘neck’. The sci-fi iconography is pure Dan Dare.

Unfortunately, despite the architectural assurance of its unusual form and surface treatment, the interiors are more like Dare’s unsophisticated sidekick Digby. The only concession to the unconventional is the inward slope of the window walls.

From the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia through to 30 St Mary Axe, Foster + Partners has always struggled with entrances, and on the evidence of these three buildings, Make does too. The Gateway’s front door is asymmetrical to the scheme’s dominant centre line. It has the added ignominy of being under the bridge linking the project’s ‘head’ to its larger linear body on the other side of Triumph Road (a route re-aligned to allow the building to connect the main part of the Jubilee Campus to a yet-to-emerge ‘innovation park’).

Once inside, the foyer is something of a disappointment. This is the only space of any real architectural significance or opportunity in any of the three buildings. A quasi-atrium with an axial bridge overhead, its ceiling contains five lightpipes on steroids that are part of the project’s environmental control system, but their positioning seems curiously undefined by the space itself. That said, the fair-faced concrete ceiling here, and in the other two buildings, are of a high construction standard despite the project’s Design and Build procurement route.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all three buildings is the sheer lack of significant internal spaces - although the functions of their various rooms perhaps do not lend themselves to atriums and grand spaces: the Gateway provides business incubator units; International House is occupied by a number of existing administrative, academic departments and teaching facilities; and the Amenity building functions as support to its siblings with a staff catering area, fitness suite, Islamic and multi-faith prayer rooms, and accommodation for visiting academics.

The accommodation housed in all three buildings is essentially ‘background’ but, perhaps understandably, like so many other young practices, Make has sought to make more of this than the functional brief really offered. The result is three very determinedly ‘foreground’ buildings, each vying for prominence, the whole arguably no greater than its parts. Make’s buildings have the characteristics found in many modern North American universities - highly individual, highly marketable, but, ultimately, very much of their time in style and intention. If care is not taken, this approach to architecture results in the kind of outré intervention manifested at the Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto by Will Alsop.

When we consider the university’s role in a nation’s intellectual development, the question might legitimately be asked: if the country’s leading academic institutions, especially those with architecture schools, can’t be faffed to take the lead in commissioning buildings with the cultural qualities required in a nation’s contemporary architecture, who will? Universities build for specific purposes, after all, and for the long term. Their architecture should not be characterised by the expediencies of speculative development, nor by flights of fashion. In this instance, the University of Nottingham has gained three distinctive buildings, but they lack the timeless qualities of the English collegiate tradition that architects such as Powell & Moya successfully managed to interpret at the Oxbridge universities.

Whether he likes it or not, Shuttleworth has a substantial reputation to maintain. It will be interesting to see if Make has the desire - and the cojones - to move beyond the transience of gesture at Nottingham and deliver significant and enduring architecture.

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