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Tuomey on the LSE's Student Centre

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John Tuomey, director, O’Donnell + Tuomey, on the Stirling Prize-shortlised Saw Swee Hock Student Centre

What was your initial design concept?

Our first thought was to make a building that responded to the on-street, open-street campus character of the LSE. The student concourse at the LSE is the street. Our competition motto was ‘Street Life’.

Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?

The finished building doesn’t differ much from the competition design. It looks much the same in elevation and plan. The brief changed in some areas, especially the omission of a double-height events space on the second floor, which made the section more straightforward from a structural point of view. The facade didn’t change much. It took a long time and some concerted effort to develop the details to make it look the way we first intended.

What was the client’s input?

The client stayed close to the design development process at every stage from mid-competition workshop to final construction. This was what made the project possible. We had a committed and supportive client. They wanted a good building.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

The site was tricky, being triangular and hemmed in on all sides. The plan is controlled by an intricate set of gridlines, drawn in from the site geometry. The client brief was complicated, with diverse uses overlapping and without obvious precedent in building typology. The section is like a slice through an ocean liner, with different functions on every floor. The brick wall is probably the most complex part of the project. But getting the building out of the ground was a triumph of logistics in itself.

What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?

The same lesson learned on other projects is confirmed by this one. Speak to everybody in the same way - clients, colleagues, planners, builders, craftsmen. Don’t disguise your intentions or talk in jargon. People will work with you to make something special if they think it’s worth the effort, if you invite their participation, and if they can see how their contribution is valued. We ask people for their help. All we ask is that they do the best they can.

Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?

It’s a very important piece of work because of where it is and how it operates, but it feels to me like it’s consistent with the way we’ve been working for years, with no radical change in our thinking. But it’s too soon to say. We haven’t had much chance to repeat ourselves since every project seems to have made different demands. Let’s see what happens and then we’ll know how to answer that question in hindsight. And maybe it’s not a question for us to answer. I’m more curious about what we do next. And life is short.

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