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Medical Sciences Building, University of St Andrews, by Reiach and Hall Architects

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[BUILDING STUDY + DRAWINGS] The decorum displayed by Reiach and Hall’s medical sciences building for the University of St Andrews harks back to the original values of the modern movement, says Miles Glendinning. Photography by Andrew Lee

The renewal of our universities, with their deeply rooted collective traditions, has become a key battleground in today’s campaign to roll back the influence of image-driven egotism in architecture. As recently as five years ago, proud civic universities were happy to commission new campuses in the form of gestural, ‘iconic’ clumps and shards, but today the emphasis is on reinvesting university architecture with the ennobling sense of social decorum that characterised not only the 18th and 19th centuries, but also the modern movement of the 20th century.

The movement had a true, authentic individuality, stemming from social programme rather than empty imagemaking. There were new university projects, of course, ranging hugely in character from the megastructural monumentality of Essex to the landscaped elegance of Stirling. But, more relevant to today, there was also a thread of restrained, highly context-responsive projects within existing universities, epitomised by Powell and Moya’s superb interventions at Christ Church, Oxford, and St John’s College, Cambridge. That tradition is now being revitalised by a number of progressive architecture practices across Britain, including Edinburgh’s Reiach and Hall Architects. The practice has been busy in recent years with a number of university projects, including two in the ancient Scottish university town of St Andrews.

The first of these two projects, a multipurpose arts faculty completed in 2006, was sited in the historic core of the burgh. The first significant new university project in the town centre for three decades, it had to fit into a leftover site abutted by the back ends of various buildings. By designing the building in an understated stone and glass modern idiom, Reiach and Hall calculatedly avoided any assertive, stand-alone image. Instead the practice concentrated on building around the edges of the site, knitting together its rough edges and embedding the concrete, balconied mass of the 1970s university library into a wider context.

The challenge of the practice’s second project for the university, the medical sciences building, was to transpose that principle of self-effacing modernity and repair-orientated urban design to the very different context of North Haugh - a new science campus under development on the edge of town. Appropriately, the same project architect, Libby Heathcote, was in charge of both buildings. Prominently located on the main road entry to St Andrews, North Haugh is a 16ha site whose piecemeal development since the 1960s had, by 2006, slid into an apparently irreversible cycle of disintegration.

Dominated by an aggressively sub-iconic circular pavilion structure - the Gateway, built as a commercial golf development in 2000 and subsequently bought by the university - the site was rapidly becoming a miniaturised Dubai-style melange. A masterplan by RMJM offered little help, proposing pavilion-style development along the main road frontage, directly confronting the even more anarchic Old Course Hotel.

This situation could not be allowed to continue, especially as the international marketing of the university emphasised values of traditional, historic cohesion. It was Reiach and Hall’s competition-winning proposal for the medical sciences building in 2006 that finally set out a strategy to reverse the disintegration, boldly using a single new building as a catalyst for the repair of the entire North Haugh campus. The practice intended to use it to knit existing buildings on the site into a new ‘urban edge’ for the town, on a line set further back from the road, shielded by a landscaped belt. The building’s harmonisation role would be pursued not just through its urban-design concept, but through the refined modernity of its architectural design. As in Reiach and Hall’s arts faculty, the building’s height and material would coordinate the surrounding blocks, including stone facing to establish a dialogue’ with the Gateway.

This strategy of ‘making connections’ also applied at another, equally important level - that of building organisation. The central principle of the £33 million scheme is cross-departmental linkage, organisationally and architecturally. This task was simplified by the fact that the school of medicine is not part of an ‘embedded’ teaching hospital. Rather, the building was to draw together previously scattered university functions.

It would replace the original Bute Medical School on the town-centre campus, creating space for an expanded annual intake of 200 students and providing laboratory teaching space for related chemistry and biology activities. Equally importantly, it would link directly to an existing physics building behind.

The result is a building plan that really makes sense only as part of a wider fabric of architecture and landscape. It embraces and integrates the banal 1960s physics and astronomy department to the south, and the excessively low, flimsy computer science building to the west. Responding to the regret of academics at leaving behind their traditional quadrangle environment, Reiach and Hall set out to exploit the diverse programme requirements of the new project to create varied building masses, around which a clearly urban network of landscaped, sheltered courtyards, threaded by pedestrian through-routes, could be created.

The functions of the new building are divided between non-specialist activities that can be accommodated with natural daylighting and low servicing (offices, seminar rooms, a café, social areas), and activities requiring high servicing (teaching and research laboratories, anatomy and dissection, and a 300-seat lecture theatre). These two categories are grouped into sharply differentiated plan-forms: the first into a shallow, L-shaped block on the east side (similar in concept to the arts faculty), and the second into a deep-plan, rectangular building at the west. The two flow together at ground-floor level, with dramatic glazed views into the lecture theatre. New courtyards are formed in the angle of the ‘L’ and between the west block and the physics building, to which it is linked by a first-floor bridge.

The agenda of harmonisation is also pursued architecturally, in the building’s external form, landscaping and use of materials. In that sense, it carries forward a consistent process of development in the work of Reiach and Hall, which stems from the firm’s commitment to a restrained modernism that is contextually rooted not in the picturesque, ‘vernacular’ stereotypes of ‘critical regionalism’, but in the formal, stone-faced classicism that distinguishes historic architecture in Scotland from the other small nations of Europe. Developed in previous projects such as New Stobhill Hospital (AJ 25.06.09) in Glasgow, this approach emerges in a mature form in the medical sciences building. In contrast to the utilitarian finishes at the rear of New Stobhill Hospital (necessitated by budget constraints), in the new project an all-round refinement, without obvious ‘front’ or ‘back’, was facilitated by the higher budget allowance of the highly serviced west (laboratory) wing. The practice spreads this wing across the project, enhancing the entire building with higherquality, more refined facing materials and detailing - not with signature gestures.

What the medical sciences building has is plenty in a sense of architectural decorum

Ten years ago, at the height of the iconic madness, a building such as this would have been ignorantly dismissed as banal or boring. But today it is the unstructured egotism of erstwhile showpieces such as Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament, with every detail shrieking for attention, that look like monotonous mountains of kitsch. What they egregiously lack, and what the medical sciences building has in plenty, is a sense of architectural decorum; of individuality ennobled within a collective framework. It displays decorum with its overall scale and proportions, with a roofline uniform with surrounding buildings, and with its precastconcrete horizontal banding tying together the two main sections of the building.

Decorum is also evident in its individual elements and details, with the external facing of the steel-framed structure differentiated subtly between the two main building elements. The office section is faced in regularly patterned sandstone cladding and vertical fenestration bands, and the more massive laboratory section features variegated fenestration interspersed with dark grey render panels. The two landscaped courtyards likewise balance a restrained collectivity in their paving and wooden decking, with subtle individuality in the use of different tree planting (birch or rowan).

Although Reiach and Hall stresses that the project’s colour palette and meticulous window proportioning are rooted in the brown-grey hues of old St Andrews and the classicism of its Georgian terraces, this is not some fundamentalist exercise in Prince Charles-style new urbanism. This is modern architecture, in the best sense of the term, recalling not so much the Georgian age as the (until recently) much-derided 1950s, 60s and 70s. Those years, rightly called les trente glorieuses by the French, were a time of relative economic austerity that produced great social architecture - a combination that may soon, once again, become very relevant to us.

Project Details

Start on site June 2008
Contract duration 19 months
Gross internal floor area 10,940m2
Form of contract Standard building contract with quantities for use in Scotland 2005
Total cost £33.7 million
Cost per m2 £3,085
Client University of St Andrews
Architect Reiach and Hall Architects
Project manager Adams Consulting Group
Structural engineer/planning supervisor URS Corporation
M&E consultant Hulley & Kirkwood
Quantity surveyor Doig + Smith
Landscape architect Environmental Designworks
Main contractor Bovis Lend Lease
Annual CO2 emissions Estimated 84kg/m2


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  • A rather soulless building lacking visual interest...

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