Wright & Wright was set up in 1994 after winning the competition to design the new library for the Royal College of Art (RCA). Previously, Sandy Wright was a partner in MacCormac, Jamieson, Pritchard and Wright. Clare Wright worked at Rock Townsend; Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis; and Circle 33 Housing Trust. Key projects include new study rooms in the V&A's Henry Cole Wing and the award-winning Women's Library. They are currently working on a project for Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and a new theatre for Hull Truck Theatre Company.
Where the poverty of Whitechapel meets the affluence of the City, an intentionally unfashionable building rises above the chaos of the surrounding clothes market, its restrained palette of materials a counterpart to a thousand competing fabrics. It looks as though it could have been built at any time in the last 30 years - in fact it is the Law Department for London Metropolitan University (LMU), completed by Wright & Wright in 2003.
Several new additions - most notably the Women's Library, also by Wright & Wright, and the Graduate Centre, by Daniel Libeskind - mark the significance of the recent transitional phase for LMU. Now one of Britain's largest universities, LMU was formed in August 2002 by the merging of London Guildhall University (LGU) and the University of North London (UNL), becoming respectively London City Campus and London North Campus. In a culture fixated on novelty, the Law Department, though still in its infancy, is deemed old news. But it is only now that all the buildings have been in use for a few years that the consequences of the two former polytechnics' design decisions are starting to become clear.
Though the choice of Libeskind reflects a widespread and understandable desire to make a statement, the totality of such individual impulses seems ultimately to amount to an urbanism comprising a handful of landmarks surrounded by dross.
Comfortable on the middle ground between the iconic and the everyday, Wright & Wright seek 'proportionality', relating the language of their architecture to its civic role. Without making a giant creative leap, they choose to arrive at the design solution with small logical steps, discreet but legible at every scale.
Both the Graduate Centre and the Law Department were completed in the same year. Libeskind was picked by UNL in November 2001. Wright & Wright became involved with LGU much earlier. An integrated learning resource centre, which was to include a small area for the national collection on women, had been planned for the site of an empty Victorian swimming baths on Goulston Street. In September 1995, Wright & Wright's winning competition proposal split the functions - and the building - in two. The learning facilities would remain on the swimming baths site, but the Women's Library, as it came to be known, would be housed within the adjacent derelict wash house, accessed from Old Castle Street.
The conception of the two campuses' buildings illustrates the very different approaches favoured by Libeskind and Wright & Wright. 'When I first visited the [Holloway Road] site, ' Libeskind told the AJ, 'it was at night and I looked up and saw Orion. I realised the building should relate to the north and the northern lights, and after all it is in north London? I never look for symbolism, it simply emerges out of the complex. In the same way you never go looking for the stars, you simply see them.' Whatever the inspiration, the shiny angular volumes of the Graduate Centre seem a histrionic gesture on Holloway Road.
Compared with this, Wright & Wright's two additions to the City Campus are the model of politeness. Keen to avoid sibling rivalry, the Law Department is informed by a pragmatic response to its surroundings, and defers to its more high-profile neighbour, the Women's Library, completed by the practice in 2001. Fitting roughly within the profile of the old swimming baths in order to avoid overshadowing the adjacent Herbert House, the addition is mostly of three storeys. It rises up to five floors at the southern end to hide the exposed side of the main university building, Calcutta House, a converted tea warehouse also of red brick. This neighbour inspired the use of visually and physically robust machine-cut red bricks, which are easy to wash down if vandalised. Windows are expressed in the facade, either as punched holes or ribbons of galvanised dark-grey steel, making the internal layout legible externally. This careful reading of - and response to - the context makes Libeskind's skyward glance seem a bit glib.
The building is entered at the prominent southern end, at the junction with Calcutta House and the Women's Library.
It is a shame that plans to link the three buildings around the adjacent garden were scuppered due to budget constraints, which also made the main entrance lobby lower than intended. The lecture theatre is below here, accessed through the stair core, so that it can easily be used by the Women's Library or rented out without entering the department. The stair cores at both ends of the building are strictly utilitarian, except for the 16m-high metal cages that fill the stairwell. Reminiscent of prison cells, I thought perhaps these were a tacit reminder to the students to stay on the right side of the law. In fact, they relate to the stairs of the Women's Library, where a specially produced frame is in-filled with artistcommissioned pieces addressing aspects of women's history. Here, the budget version is made entirely from standard components and doesn't have the dramatic lighting.
The long double-height atrium, suggested by the mostly blank facade that faces the housing, became the key architectural driver internally; known as the 'common room' by staff and students, this is the space to which subsidiary rooms are orientated.
Extremely busy between seminars, then suddenly emptying out, this is where the life of the department unfolds - the drama provided more by the students than by the architecture. All seminar rooms connect to this main space: those on the ground floor are entered directly from the common room, with an overlooking walkway providing access to those on the upper floor.
Whereas all the spaces in the Women's Library are bespoke, the common room is unique in a department characterised by repetition; its architectural treatment reflects the special social function. In addition to the exposed concrete and white-painted plaster used throughout the building, oak furniture has been custom made, sturdy enough to survive heavyhanded or sticky-fingered students. To avoid unnecessary clutter, a single fitting has been designed to incorporate alarms, tannoys, emergency and ordinary lighting (a copy of a fitting that the practice had designed for the RCA Library later appeared in a catalogue, so they now market these themselves). The natural light filtering through the structural glazed roof traces lines across these surfaces, emphasising their depth and animating the space throughout the day.
It was always intended by the architects that this space would function more as a room than as circulation, and it fulfils this very well. The deliberate rhythm of the common room makes it instantly readable and must be an advantage to new visitors trying to find their way around. However, moving through the space is a slight anticlimax, with not much happening at the end of the room. Structural concrete portal frames run along the eastern wall. The first two open into a smaller space (now a café), causing one to expect that all the subsequent arches will also offer little hidden spaces; they don't, leaving the impression that perhaps they are saving up for the additional rooms.
For all its sense of solidity and permanence, this is a building designed to yield to changing requirements and taste.
The seminar rooms are easily adaptable: the partition walls are fixed to the beam soffit and can be moved in a day. Access arrangements allow the rooms to be easily doubled or halved, with fire routes planned to work for all configurations. Mechanical and electrical services require little or no alteration when partition walls are moved as they run along the outer edges, by the windows and corridor. The third floor has been divided into offices by partition walls that can be easily removed if another arrangement is required. If wireless technology takes off in the department, the client might regret its insistence that computer rooms have no windows, which slightly limits the options for reuse.
The architecture is tough enough to absorb such signs of appropriation without appearing undermined. The common room doesn't feel like an institutional space; year on year the students assume a sense of ownership without actually leaving a trace. The office spaces have been personalised by their users - some have covered the glass panels of their office doors for extra privacy (suggesting that the open-plan option isn't yet popular with staff).
Noting that the building hasn't altered from the plans, I was initially sceptical of the emphasis on flexibility. But thinking of the Bartlett and the RCA - where I studied - the spaces could definitely have been improved if there hadn't been so many loadbearing walls. Undoubtedly, Libeskind's Graduate Centre will have done more to raise the profile of LMU than the Law Department.
But in 50 years' time, will students who can't get a seat in a lecture be comforted by the knowledge that they are standing in 'the spatial emblem of the northern sky'?
Costs Costs refer to gross internal floor area.
Cost analysis based on tender sum.
SUBSTRUCTURE Foundation/slabs £205/m 2Cast in place and contiguous bored piling; areas of underpinning SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame £76/m 2Reinforced concrete walls; structural-steel columns, beams and trusses Upper floors £100/m 2Reinforced-concrete suspended slabs Roof £71/m 2Timber roof structure; asphalt coverings; large area of glazed aluminium rooflights/skylights Staircases £25/m 2Reinforced concrete stairways External walls £50/m 2Facing brickwork Windows and external doors £70/m 2Curtain walling; steel windows and window frames; steel and timber doors and frames Internal walls and partitions £38/m 2Brick, block internal walls; metal stud partitioning;
WC cubicles Internal doors £48/m 2Timber doors and frames INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes £15/m 2Plasterboard and painted plaster finish;
ceramic tiling to areas Floor finishes £64/m 2Raised access floor to main areas; carpet tiles;
rubber sheeting Ceiling finishes £16/m 2Plasterboard acoustic ceilings; areas of suspended ceilings; radiant ceiling system FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS Furniture £45/m 2Shelving; kitchen fittings; worktops; hanging rails;
blinds, entrance desk; balcony seating; lecture theatre fittings; vending area SERVICES Sanitary and appliances £14/m 2Urinals and WCs Disposal installations £1/m 2Cast-iron rainwater pipework Mechanical & electrical installations £345/m 2Mains water services; gas-fired LTHW; supply and extract ventilation; DX units; extract system to toilets; electrical and lighting; small power; builders' work EXTERNAL WORKS Landscaping, ancillary buildings £19/m 2Drainage; fencing; kerbs and pavings; cycle stands;
community school entrance PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES Preliminaries, overheads and profits £405/m 2Contractor's organisational costs; temporary works;
maintaining access to areas