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Exposed concrete rises to a university challenge

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Exposed concrete makes a strong visual statement at the new Avril Robarts Learning Resource Centre for the Liverpool John Moores University. Glenn Ombler reports.

Photographs by Alan Williams

The new £6 million, 5500m2 Avril Robarts Learning Resource Centre, Liverpool John Moores University's second learning resource centre, provides high levels of learning technology for academic staff and students from the engineering, science, education, health and social-science faculties. It opened in time for the first semester of the 1997/98 academic year.

The building's character evolves from its context, with a curved solid wall facade along Tithebarn Street and Vauxhall Road punctured by small windows. The wall effectively forms a shield against both pollution and traffic noise and encloses a new college garden behind. The brick facade is divided in two by a sheer cliff of glazing that is the atrium entrance. The glazing serves to break the scale of the imposing long, horizontal curved mass of brickwork with divided sections echoing the proportions, colour and scale of the surrounding buildings. South of the main entrance, at ground level, a curved wall of blue render encloses the lecture theatre and relates to the forms of curved building corners in the vicinity.

Stairs and service towers terminate the ends of the building, 'bookending' the deep-plan library's spaces within. The structure is unified by an oversailing aluminium roof and a band of continuous clerestory glazing which runs along the top of the building and allows natural light to penetrate deep into the top floor. The pure plane of the monopitch roof falls away towards the library garden and is punctuated only by a row of circular dome lights over the curving circulation route through the open plan access within.

Inside the building, the plan at each floor level is organised around the simple linear circulation route which runs the length of the building in a gentle curve. At each floor level this route defines and orders zones of flexible accommodation: lending; computing; reading; book stacks.

The full-height entrance atrium space contains a security checkpoint and reception desk for the whole complex - comprising the learning resource centre and the school of health care - while also acting as a crush lobby to the 210-seat lecture theatre. The floors are visually connected by the full-height atrium, and physically by the main stair. The grey steel stair, finished with precast treads and suspended from a fairfaced concrete shear wall, is the focus of this space. This allows the building to be easily negotiated by new users.

Concrete is an important visual element of the learning resource centre. It has been used both non-structurally as a column encasement and structurally as the shear wall. In both cases the concrete has been left exposed.

As a column encasement that provides one-hour fire protection, concrete was selected because of its robustness and visual qualities. Columns in libraries are susceptible to damage from book trolleys and from users' briefcases and bags. Although care was taken in the casting of the columns, using steel shutters to obtain the smoothest possible finish, there is enough texture and 'grain' in the concrete to hide scuffs and marks. This texture, together with its warm colour, provides a satisfying contrast with the neutrality of the white metal ceiling and plain blue-grey carpet.

The use of concrete shear walls to provide stability to the steel frame was the preference of structural engineer Wright Mottershaw and was adopted with enthusiasm because of the expressive possibilities it offered. At each end of the building, the concrete walls are wrapped around precast- concrete fire-escape stairs and left exposed 'as struck'. No attempt was made to control the locations of shutter joints or provide a particularly fine finish. The results are fairly rough and ready but are appropriate in creating a rugged backdrop for the steel staircase balustrades and blue linoleum flooring.

In the main entrance area a shear wall was required both for stability and as a means of support for the main staircase suspended from it. The structural nature of the wall is left fully exposed. Due to the importance of location, great care was taken in the setting-out of shutter joints and she-bolts to ensure the creation of a coherent surface pattern relating to floor levels. Because the work had to be done within a tight budget, ordinary mdf-faced shutters and conventional casting techniques were used. A translucent mineral paint was used to mask out any blemishes and to even out colour variations without obliterating the character of the concrete.

Accommodation of learning materials and study spaces is on a modular basis, with the structural 6m x 6m grid designed to allow efficient planning of both bookshelves and study tables. The centre provides over 1000 working spaces - one for reading and/or computing for every seven students. Three hundred of the work spaces are equipped with information-technology terminals for the retrieval of information held either within the centre or accessible via networking to other Liverpool John Moores University resources.

The new centre is already in great demand by both students and academic staff who appreciate not only the comprehensive range of facilities provided but also the attractive learning environment.

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