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Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, LSE by O’Donnell + Tuomey

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Stirling Prize 2014: A triangular site has produced a response of bold geometries resulting in a popular and convivial building full of pleasures and surprises, writes Jay Merrick

My first visit to the LSE’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, a couple of weeks after it opened, produced two overriding impressions: firstly, a kind of wonder that such a vividly angular form could arise in such a scrunched fag-end of cityscape; secondly, that the bold geometries of the internal volumes had been instantly taken over by students. This was not look-at-me object architecture; it was an original response to a triangular site parcel that produced a building that worked.

A short film made after the opening, Vox Pop, spliced together students’ remarks about the building and two comments sum up the range of their responses. ‘The architecture is strange, but in a unique way,’ said one. ‘It’s very artful,’ mused another. Their responses were universally enthusiastic.

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s design of the Student Centre possesses Medieval, Expressionist, and Soaneian qualities. It is not, however, a grand architectural statement. It is, instead, a remarkable unfolding of formal, spatial, and functional possibilities. And it is absolutely anti-iconic - the opposite of, say, Daniel Libeskind’s proposed extension for the V&A more than a decade ago.

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There are no drama-queen algorithms, mystic maths, or parametrics here, but an obsession with bricks helped. The precise position of every facing brick was mapped: 43,633 brick specials, 28,000 solid specials, 98,000 standard bricks. Total: 173,377.

The architecture’s external language of expressive, contextually informed triangulations, folds, glazing shapes and cranked cantilevers translates, quite brilliantly, into interiors and specific functions. Despite the geometry, no parts of the building seem either forced, or left over. And there are surprises: the circular, cave-like quiet room, and the chapel on the second floor, with an end wall composed of stained glass.

One encounters visual, textural and spatial pleasures at every turn: the angles of the landings and stair-runs; the positions of the outlooks; the triangulated coloured panels on the lift core; views of as many as three levels at once; the concrete secondary staircase plunging down, like a giant béton brut drill-bit, through six levels into the basement club-cum-auditorium.

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The shifts in light and atmosphere and the subtly contrived transitions between calm and active spaces have conjured up a properly convivial building. The big, high-ceilinged Learning Café on the piano nobile, with its skewed light-reflecting oval discs, has an almost chic vibe; the ground-floor bar is bathed in soft tan light that recalls interiors in Edward Hopper paintings; those working in the radio station booth are particularly pleased they can be observed from the second-floor landing.

At the top of the building, on the sixth floor, the café and roof terrace look out over chunks of the LSE’s estate, and the darkly scaled spire of the Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn. The terrace’s angular plan feels casually witty, rather than strictly geometric, and on my first visit to the building, in the middle of an afternoon, the whole top floor was buzzing with students.

The eye has not, as Charles Jencks might say, been conned. And the architectural virtues of the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre are framed by an even greater virtue. This building proves that a fine practice, sophisticated client and planners, and D&B contractors who realise they’re building something special, can deliver outstanding new city fabric on sites of very poor quality. 

  • Jay Merrick is architecture critic of the Independent
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