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Architectural surgery

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BUILDING STUDY; WELLCOME TRUST BUILDING, GREAT ORMOND STREET HOSPITAL

Architect's account

NICHOLAS BURWELL

orms

The Wellcome Trust Building is the third phase of orms's masterplan for the extension and rejuvenation of the Institute of Child Health. Phase 3 continues the exploration of the relationship between the physical environment and the exchange and generation of ideas which began with our Phase 1 extension to the Province of Natal building on the site in 1994 (aj 8.9.94). The final phase of the redevelopment, the insertion of building fabric into the damaged streetscape of Lambs Conduit Street, will address the question of private/public interface, and the nature of the Wellcome Trust Building's public role from its position deep within the Great Ormond Street Hospital complex. The various phases of development are a result of the brief by the Dean of the Institute, Professor Roland Levinsky, to create spatial relationships which allow for spontaneous encounters and chance meetings of minds.

The physical context presented a multitude of challenges. The site was occupied by a lecture theatre and an oxygen and chemical plant. The surrounding research and hospital buildings were to remain occupied during construction, with physical links to three of them to be constructed. These problems were compounded by variable ground conditions, a water table only marginally below ground, and a narrow site entrance in use both as a means of escape and for fire tender access.

The building divides horizontally into different forms: the skin of the lower, public part of the building is solid and curvilinear, while the upper, private research areas are organised in glazed rectilinear forms.

The ground and lower ground floors are used for conferences, meetings and informal gatherings. The new 290-seat lecture theatre is designed with low reverberation and controlled sound reflectance. A steep rake to the rear maximises the available volume, while creating a real wall to the space ensuring intimacy and sound absorption when the auditorium is only half-full. The continental seating arrangement eliminates the need for disruptive central aisles. Instead, circulation is at either side of the seating, directly under dropped bulkheads containing air-handling services and flanking acoustic panels.

Stepping from the controlled acoustics of the main lecture theatre, one meets the acoustically live environment of the glazed wintergarden, which acts as the confluence for the various patterns of movement around the site and is the setting for a water sculpture by William Pye. The sculpture provides a level of background noise that encourages private conversation in this public space. Stone, hardwood, slate and stainless steel provide a natural colour palate for the lower building; their material quality and calm creates natural inconsistencies and establishes a secondary scale to the architectural elements.

The research floors sit above the conference areas, their geometry responding to the surrounding hospital buildings. A wedge of shared facilities and circulation occupies the void between glazed blocks, ensuring chance contact between occupants.

An exposed reinforced concrete structure with a raised floor offered the opportunity to maximise headroom while connecting to the existing building stock at all levels. The painted concrete soffits were cast using pre-formed grp shuttering which relates to the structural grid of the building. These soffits have expressed clamping fillets which provide a hierarchy and organisational framework for the insertion of partitions. A combination of suspended luminaires and cast-in lights respond to the soffit and differentiate between the periphery and the centre of the plan.

The concrete columns of the upper building are formed using both grp and permanent tubular steel shuttering. The central columns, tear-shaped in section, mediate between the geometries of the upper blocks. The peripheral columns reduce in diameter, reflecting structural requirements and creating subtle differences at each floor.

The technical and social challenges of juxtaposing public and private, and new and existing elements, made the Wellcome Trust Building more complex than either its size or the £4.3 million budget would suggest. We hope that the project addresses the nature of academic life and its embodiment within the physical environment of the city. It attempts to provide a framework for participation and an environment in which learning may flourish through chance exchanges.

Structural engineer's account

NICK HANIKA AND PAUL BATTY

Price & Myers

The constraints of a very constricted site with access only from a narrow ramp meant the method of construction had to be carefully considered. Any large prefabricated elements would have had to be lifted over the roof of the institute's main building, so concrete which could be pumped from the street if necessary was a natural choice. Ground conditions on the Great Ormond Street site are variable, with an abundance of water which flows towards the line of the River Fleet in Lambs Conduit Street. Continuous-flight auger piles and drainage routes installed across the site avoided disturbing ground water conditions.

The upper building has exposed in-situ concrete ribbed floors, created with purpose-made grp moulds, either side of a tapering central spine. Recesses for light fittings and transfer tubes for air flow were incorporated in the exposed concrete. Central columns have a tear-drop shape in response to the tapering spine. To keep the perimeter columns as small as possible, they were cast using permanent steel tube formers which reduce in size at each floor.

One of the main elevations spans 15m over the auditorium below. Full- height four-storey Vierendeel frames and trusses were considered but abandoned in favour of a 0.8m-wide sill-height upstand beam at the lowest level and clear uninterrupted glazing above. Heavily reinforced with three layers of 40mm-diameter bars, the beam was precambered and remained propped until the upper frame was complete. The auditorium and lower levels are of a traditional reinforced concrete. However, a combination of the geometry and acoustic isolation of the two frames led to some far-from-traditional details. The isolation joint follows a curved path beside and over seminar rooms. There are transfer beams, one of which balances on a single 750mm- diameter column, double walls and slabs which cantilever over other slabs.

Appraisal

ALAN STANTON

Stanton Williams

London, compared to most great cities, has more than its fair share of jumbled blocks of varied buildings, incoherent street patterns, leftover spaces and back alleys. In a strongly individualistic culture, there seems always to have been resistance to the idea of the masterplan - great urban projects, exemplified by Paris and other European cities. In the name of practicality and short-term expediency, much of London has been continuously cobbled together without any thought as to how buildings can work together to make a whole that is greater than its parts.

Bloomsbury is, or rather was, one of the more consistent parts of this jumbled city. Over time, the public squares have been destroyed and terraces broken as the area has gradually been transformed by changes in use - changes that are mostly brought about by the development of London University - an ad hoc process that leaves it without any real public spaces and thus without identity.

The Institute of Child Health (now part of the University of London) is situated in a Bloomsbury block that is consistent only in its chaotic form. Massively developed for the Great Ormond Street Hospital in a series of large chunks during the last 40 years, the buildings are incoherent and for the most part lack any real architectural quality. The remnanted space between the buildings is a series of service yards, storage dumps and blind alleys. The buildings stand side by side in close proximity but ignore one another - strangers in a crowd. There is no sense of shared experience or communal endeavour.

The institute has, however, been recently given a sense of communal endeavour by its dean, who had the task of shoe-horning 40 per cent more building into the site. An inspired client who realised that continuing the years of no-plan would result in further tangled mess and an uninspired working environment, he brought in orms to perform some complex architectural surgery. Within its masterplan, the scheme allows the institute to develop in a logical way, optimise opportunities and make sense of the spaces in between. The task for orms was to create an 'architecture of the backlands' with proper public spaces that would be the first step towards an integrated approach to the whole block. At another level, the challenge was how to make the forms and spaces intelligible - not from the outside, or even from above, but from within as they are revealed step by step when people move through the spaces.

The 'diagram' builds upon a circulation spine across the site, but it is the powerful use of light that makes the circulation work. One of the benefits of working in the 'backlands' is that it forces the scheme to adopt strong zenithal light and it is this light, pulled down through rooflights, glass screens and windows, that articulates the spaces and makes them come alive.

Even the adjacent lecture theatre (of necessity a closed box) has a shuttered window slot that admits a chink of light and allows the space to breathe. And it works well - the promenade from the revamped Guildford Street entrance expands with a dramatic, light internal courtyard that reveals the surrounding buildings and has a strong identity as a 'forum' for the inhabitants. It moves on as a successful gallery space through to the hospital at the rear and below to a refectory - embedded in the existing Guildford Street building.

But this is only half the project. Overhead, above the courtyard space, are five storeys of offices where the institute's research takes place. Although the cast concrete ceiling along the side of the courtyard space suggests an 'underbelly' to the floors above, there is no vertical space or view that allows the whole project to be grasped from this area. It is only by moving outside to the narrow service areas and looking up, or taking the lift, that one becomes aware of the superstructure above.

This superstructure is almost a separate project. Whereas the lower courtyard spaces have been designed as a series of spaces working from the inside out, the areas above are dealt with as a more conventional free-standing office 'building'. It has well-detailed facades, albeit unseen except for partial glimpses from buildings across the alleys. They are designed to be viewed and it would be nice to think that the remaining service yards between the hospital and the institute could eventually be exploited as future accessible public spaces.

This is a ship-in-a-bottle project - tucked-away invisible architecture that required intelligence, care and hard work. It has been carefully and consistently detailed in good materials to make it a good place to be and work. This kind of architecture demands a generation of designers willing to confront the problems left by a legacy of tattered sites and mostly second-rate buildings from the past. Stitching all this together is demanding work and, short of large-scale redevelopment of urban areas (a virtual impossibility in this country), vitally necessary for the future improvement of our cities.

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