Non-architects may consider it fashionable to claim an interest in architecture, but with Brian Roper, economist and vice-chancellor of the University of North London, the interest is genuine. He is a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, subscribes to the aj, and spent Christmas reading a book about Tadao Ando. Far more importantly, he is presiding over a programme of brave and imaginative building, of which the appointment of Zaha Hadid to design a vital link footbridge is only the latest example.
'If there are two ways of proceeding,' Roper says, 'one of which is straightforward and boring, and the other involving risks and turbulence, we take the more difficult route.' This is not out of perversity but because he is determined to give his students, a high proportion of whom come from deprived backgrounds, the best. 'We are determined to succeed despite the material disadvantages we and they have,' he said.
Having acquired a set of undistinguished and dilapidated buildings on either side of the Holloway Road, in a depressed part of the borough of Islington, Roper quickly resolved on taking up his post six years ago that 'Just making do and mending is not sufficient.' Universities now exist in a competitive world, and their building and facilities are a strong part of their sales strategy. 'We want to create the only fully integrated campus in London,' he explained. 'It will be a university in the air, existing only minimally on the ground.'
He describes his approach to commissioning buildings as 'progressive pragmatism' - he wants both the best and value for money. He has set up a development department - which, unusually for a university, employs four architects - to draw up the £50 million masterplan for the next six or seven years.
'We resolved that we would build better,' says Roper, 'and think beyond price and fees.' The procurement system, of keeping fee bids unopened until the best design has been chosen, has been commended by the National Audit Office. Proof of its efficacy is that the lowest bid has not always won, and on one occasion the job went to the highest bidder.
Porter is under no illusion that everything will be plain sailing. 'Working with people at the top of a creative profession,' he says, 'we expect there to be a dialogue, but we expect to be listened to.' His combination of sympathy and steel may be even more crucial in the future. 'I will be looking for emergent talents,' he says, 'especially from those who have not done much in the uk.'