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Building economy: Appraisal

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building study; Loughborough University's new business school and economics building, designed by Ahrends Burton & Koralek, respects and completes the existing campus architecture, yet distinguishes itself in its architectural expression


Institute of Architecture, University of Nottingham

Now that the so-called 'new' universities founded in the wake of the 1992 Higher Education Act are well established, it is easy to forget how recent a phenomenon the growth of English universities has been. By the nineteenth century England could muster only Oxford and Cambridge; by the twentieth, the ranks were swelled to include London, Durham and the northern civics. But within a regional context, until Nottingham University gained it charter in 1948, the East Midlands was without such an institution. Now the region can boast six ,of which Loughborough, which reached university status in 1966, represents a major player. Like many provincial universities, Loughborough has its origins as a Technical Institute (founded in 1909) reflecting the town's engineering industry (Royce Cranes, the precursor to Rolls-Royce, still exist in the town), but also like many post-war universities, Loughborough embraces the well-established campus orthodoxy.

Much of Loughborough's campus architecture from the 1950s and 1960s reflects exactly the mainstream modernist preoccupations of the day, but the immediate context for abk's new business school and economics building is of a very different persuasion; Rutland Hall (1932) and Hazlerigg Hall (1938), by E G Fowler in ponderous brick 'Academic Tudor' represent a still-unfinished campus 'marker'. By respecting the height and scale of these existing buildings, abk has successfully completed this building group to reinstate a convincing 'threshold' to campus entry. The new building achieves this in a relaxed way without aping an existing formal collegiate plan, or, thankfully, its spurious historicist trappings.

Indeed, it is this intelligent response to the site which distinguishes this building from its mundane neighbours; the dramatic three-storey sweep of the business school has a commanding presence over playing fields to the south east, while the spur of the economics department to the north west successfully divides the site into well-defined areas of car parking and soft landscape. The elevated site is accentuated by an earth mound along the entire curved elevation to the business school.

Equally direct is the parti: a curved linear block, three storeys high, with central corridor and two banks of cellular office-type accommodation forms the business school, while a straight block of similar sectional organisation is placed at right angles to it, forming the department of economics. The two blocks are pulled apart to form an 'interface' to accommodate a common entrance lobby, main stair, lift, and wcs.

This configuration offers the benefits of legibility and economy (although not in terms of minimising the external envelope), but disappoints in its assumptions that the demands of university teaching space for the next century will be met by cellular accommodation off internal corridors. The plan also suggests that the demands of an economics department, the major activity of which is undergraduate teaching, can be met by an identical architectural response to that of a business school committed to specialised post-graduate teaching.

Despite the pressures of economy, the architects have fashioned the 'interface' spaces for maximum visual drama. Bridges within a three-storey entrance hall connect the two central corridors with the main staircase, itself sadly obscured from the landing spaces. Dramatic views out from these landings engage with the rear curved elevation to the business school and offer a constant reminder of the plan form as the building is traversed.

But it is the building's architectural expression which most spectacularly sets it apart from its context. Most striking is the highly controlled use of colour which further helps in 'reading' the plan: to the north, elevations are terracotta, a gesture to the adjacent brick 'academic tudor', while to the south the strong yellow ochre hue of the curved wall dramatically responds to strong sunlight. This theme is successfully extended by a bright-turquoise central core.

Not surprisingly, the cellular nature of the building is expressed in a regular rhythm of deeply-recessed square windows, also reflecting the architect's original choice of a heavy blockwork envelope. In the event this was substituted by a plywood cladding system with rendered insulation, whose identical visual outcome may well cause some discomfort to architectural purists. But such purists must surely call to question a metal-louvred shading device as mere 'styling' to extend the southerly eaves; even with the sun at its highest elevation, no shading whatever is effected except to the blank parapet beneath. The fenestration pattern is broken by continuous strip windows to the north-west elevation of the management development centre, suggesting larger volumes within this part of the building; to the south-east similar spaces curiously revert to the cellular window pattern found elsewhere. Gables are successfully enlivened by the plastic form of escape stairs which terminate the linear elements of the plan.

The resolution of detail is direct and particularly elegant in the fashioning of balustrades in mild steel, but some details such as entrance thresholds and hard landscaping appear somewhat crude by comparison. This is surely an inevitable consequence of the design-and-build method of procurement currently favoured by so many university estates officers. Another outcome of such a deeply constraining design-and-build regimen must be building stock which manifestly fails to match the considerable aspirations of modern progressive universities, both in developing new building typologies and in harnessing an appropriately progressive technology.

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