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University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

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Patel Taylor’s new buildings fit well with the campus’s existing Brutalist environment while retaining their own particular characters

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA

Do Patel Taylor’s new Silberrad Student Centre, and its  substantial extension to the existing library block, represent the death of a great, half-century-old experiment, or reasonable modulations of Brutalism through time? In the 1960s and 70s, this compact campus was a stark demonstration of architectural otherness and a hotbed of socio-political objection. Along with the University of Sussex, Essex was regarded as fundamentally fractious. Wivenhoe, where many of the latter’s students lived, had a suitably grungy sobriquet: Sociology-on-Sea.

By the 1990s Sussex was being dubbed Balliol by the Sea because many of its teaching staff were Oxonians, and the only faintly radical event that took place in that period was a lecture by Jacques Derrida, which the philosophy students struggled to understand. Not to worry: the buildings around them, by Basil Spence, were less mysterious.

Kenneth Capon conceived of the campus as Corb and Tange meet Italian hill town

The University of Essex, however, still seems very old-school agitprop; a tough, more or less monochrome architectural tableau, which doesn’t radiate the come-hither, comfy, hang-loose attractions that most universities are now desperate to offer. Patel Taylor’s latest buildings here have raised the bar in this convivial respect, even if its 2007 Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall, a gleaming metal-sheathed ovoid drum punctured by a projecting, not quite Brutalist piano nobile remains a puzzlingly outré typological gambit.

The campus, designed by Kenneth Capon of Architects Co-Partnership, is formed with a mixture of Brutalist object-buildings, stripped Modernist courtyard segments with Brutalist punctuation marks, and surly, dark turd-brown residential silos that were the tallest all-brick buildings in Europe when the first intake of 122 students arrived in 1962. It was in this right-on setting, incidentally, that Joseph Rykwert supervised Daniel Libeskind’s MA in the history and theory of architecture.

Capon conceived of the campus, within a stepped and narrowly radial layout, as Corb and Tange meet Italian Hill Town, though there is actually no compelling sense of San Gimignano or Volterra about the composition. The core of the campus has been earnestly compared to La Tourette, and the towers to Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories. But one can just as easily say that the campus looks and feels like an overwrought new-town shopping centre embedded in the shallow valley of Wivenhoe Park.

Nevertheless, in the architectural and pedagogic sense, Capon more or less achieved his intention to create ‘something fierce to let them work within’, even if one of Derrida’s aperçus mocks that idea: ‘Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: “Here are our monsters,” without immediately turning the monsters into pets.’ It isn’t a negative criticism to say that there is nothing architecturally ferocious about Patel Taylor’s new Silberrad Student Centre, and its extension to Capon’s Albert Sloman Library.

Three years ago, Patel Taylor co-founder and director Andrew Taylor was confronted with a brief requiring a new building that would function as a 24/7 student centre with learning, media and support services, and would also contain additional library space. He convinced the university to adopt a better plan: an extension of Capon’s existing library, with a separate student centre building.

The perspective between the two buildings is properly dramatic

This approach supports the university’s strategic plan to create a pedestrian axis leading from the western edge of the campus, past four of the residential towers, to the north carpark. This scheme also allowed Taylor considerable architectural delectation; extending Capon’s Brutalist library without simply copying it, and designing a student centre that had something, but not everything, to do with Brutalism; ergo, two quite different kinds of homage.

‘We did 95 per cent of the construction drawings,’ says Taylor, ‘because this building was very important to us. And we took great care with the concrete. This was a Design & Build job, but Kiers [the contractor] did a great job.’

One important result is a long, well-balanced and interesting axial relationship between the extended library and the student centre. The perspective between the two buildings is properly dramatic; the three-level student centre features massive concrete floor/ceiling slabs, which cantilever outwards quite considerably from the second and third floors to create powerfully graphic sightlines down the long east and west elevations.

The entry-point at the southern end of the student centre is oversailed by a double-height 15m cantilever supported by an asymmetric arrangement of columns. And from this canopied piazza, the material contrasts are absolutely clear: the edges of the projecting slabs are inscribed with mid-line indents that immediately signal the great care taken with the concrete surfaces; the slabs pass back into the building through a glazed facade with rough-finished Ancaster limestone stone sections.

Inside the reception area, there are bold comings together of in-situ cast concrete walls, the paler mix of the ceiling slabs, and a suberbly sculptural, almost surreal staircase in black bronze, which rises up through a three-level atrium lit by a glazed light-slot in the roof.

Functionally, the floor layouts are unremarkable, in the essentially open-plan manner that has become common in large educational buildings. The ambience, tempered by the materiality and the generous amount of natural light, is quite pleasant. The ground floor contains a learning hub and creative studios, with staff hub, and financial and student services on the first floor.  

Taylor modulates the building’s straightforward plans with stone-faced ‘chock’ segments (smooth finished rather than rough) that punch out from the facades at three points on the ground floor, and from one point on the second floor. The long elevations are visually teasing – four thick slabs of pale concrete sandwiching irregular widths of vertical glazing and stone facings. The grey-blue, cream and pale rust colourations of the stone seem pastel-soft in comparison to the concrete decks: béton brut-cum-pierre douce.

Taylor’s treatment of the library extension combines referential logic and formal boldness. The plan of the four-level extension is anchored to the continuation of the central axis, which passes north-south through Capon’s original building, its concrete structure glazed, with big exposed beam and column joints. Most of the extension’s east elevation is sheer glazed – a deliberately smooth contrast to Capon’s elevations – with the library terraces and reading desks set back from the row of slightly crudely detailed I-beams bracing the glass. This gap supports the high degree of natural, stack-effect ventilation.

The elevations also feature rather slick, projecting glazing modules that serve self-contained study spaces. An obsessive-compulsive typologist might fret about these vitrine-like features, in their relation to both Capon’s elevations and the extension’s otherwise uncomplicated glassiness. But there’s no doubt that, internally, the new library spaces are successful. Costs have quite obviously been cut in this part of the scheme, but to no notably disastrous spatial or aesthetic effect. Taylor’s selection and deployment of materials across both buildings has been shrewd, and the Silberrad Student Centre and the library extension have very particular characters and atmospheres. And they manage to be neither monsters or pets.

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

Source: Edmund Sumner

Brief

Roger Meyer, associate, Patel Taylor

An extension to the Albert Sloman Library, a new student centre and lakeside square have created an important new front door to the University of Essex.

The buildings will provide an integrated learning centre, library, special collections, reading room, student media centre, one-stop shop for student facilities and a board room for the university council.

Working closely within the context of the existing library, the 1960s campus infrastructure and the heritage parkland setting, this design shows the importance of context and programme to conceive flexible design resonating with a sense of place. Attention to detail at all stages of the process ensured the delivery of high-quality buildings and landscape.

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

Source: Edmund Sumner

Architect’s view

Andrew Taylor, director, Patel Taylor

When the university approached us to extend the library and provide a new focal point for student services, the bold existing architecture served to provide material and design cues for the new buildings; the in-situ concrete structure expressed inside and out clearly describing the forms and arrangement of spaces.

We split the functions of the library extension and student centre, providing a linear landscape between the two buildings to define a new axial route and engage more directly with the lakeside setting.

With a clear diagram of oversailing layers organising the building, the student centre creates a strong sense of perspective and movement against the colonnade of library columns. A syncopated rhythm of limestone piers and full-height glazing echoes an irregular glazing device used extensively across the campus.

Inside, the plan provides flexible floorplates that can evolve with the building. A three-storey atrium houses a sculptural steel and oak staircase, its cantilevered forms moving horizontally and vertically in the volume.

The extension is deliberately sympathetic to the powerful structural expression of Kenneth Capon’s original building; increasing capacity and providing additional flexible study spaces – an extension rather than a competing addition.

Echoing the rhythmic two-storey paired columns, the cantilevered four-storey book stacks and the strong verticality of the glazing, the extension reflects the library across the monolithic core. A textured, rusticated base supports the framed reading rooms, with generous oriel windows to open up new views into the landscaped setting.

The visual concrete was the delight of the project, with as much focus on the carpentry for casting as on the joinery within the buildings. The sober academic library stands over the more playful stonework and vibrant furnishing of the student centre. The concrete, converging landscape and strong visual connections ensure that the two buildings remain together, apart.

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

Source: Tim Soar

Engineer’s view

Matthew Wells, director, Techniker

The project comprised two concrete frames with very different characteristics. The design of the new library extension makes repeated reference to the existing building, and a lot of effort was expended in concealing thermal breaks to bring the exposed concrete structure up to current standards.

Our central strategy was to produce two structures that were robust and efficient, thereby releasing some of the budget to particular set pieces within the design. The student centre is a series of floors, terraces and roof plates with large overhangs. Void formers reduce the weight of the more extreme cantilevers. The extended western approach to the building keeps the eyeline along the continuous eaves and would betray any imperfection in the casting.

Pre-cambers were carefully set up to be unobtrusive but to avoid any hint of sag in the structure. There has been much research on the junction between slabs and columns in reinforced concrete construction, and we used this to develop the open head detail that allows light down the forecourt shafts. The mix itself was fully designed, with ground-granulated blast-furnace slag (GGBS) used to reduce cement content and lighten appearance. As always, achieving a natural board mark needed considerable attention.

The big scissor stair in the foyer was good fun. The sides are full-depth trussed girders and the fabrication was beautifully made. The whole thing was lifted through the roof. Footfall vibration was controlled by partially completing some joints and not others to improve inherent damping.

The existing library uses post-tensioning in its larger beam elements. We avoided this expensive procedure by studying the reinforcement levels achievable in the given sections. A big sculptural pier carries the extra-high loading of the end walls. A full-height glass wall lighting the galleried reading room has structural mullions that double as brises-soleil. Bay window reading areas were completed as lightweight aedicules within the main frame. 

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

University of Essex Student Centre by Patel Taylor

Source: Tim Soar

Project data

Start on site 2011
Completion July 2015
Gross internal floor area 6,350m²
Form of contract or procurement route
Design & Build
Construction cost £17.3 million
Construction cost per m² £2,725
Architect Patel Taylor
Client University Of Essex
Structural engineer Techniker
M&E consultant Mott Macdonald Fulcrum
Quantity surveyor PRP
Project manager Sweett Group
CDM coordinator CCAS
Approved building inspector Colchester Borough Council Building Control Department
Main contractor Kier Eastern
CAD software used Microstation

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