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Julian Robinson: ‘I believe in competitions’

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Julian Robinson, the director of estates at the LSE, on his love of architectural competitions and why students won’t come to badly design universities

What are your current architectural projects?
We’re just about to take handover of our New Students’ Centre by O’Donnell Tuomey - an architectural masterpiece. We’ve started our next set piece project - the Global Centre for Social Sciences and I’m really looking forward to working with RSHP for the first time. Next year we will be launching a further international design competition for another major building on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Wrapped around these projects will be the refurbishment of the remaining LSE buildings and a major public realm initiative.

How important is the quality of the built environment to students?
Very. I’m just about to publish research I commissioned on behalf of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum which shows that over third of students rejected a university due to the quality of its buildings and estate. That’s a huge figure. Clearly this matters to universities and they continue to invest billions in the built environment.

Explain your strategy for finding architects?
When I started in the university sector, there was the concept of the ‘College architect’. They got all the work. I’m a great believer in design competitions and also giving small practices a crack at some of the less prominent jobs to give them a way into the university sector. Contests are enormously stimulating and demonstrate the incredible design ability and intellectual rigour the best architects employ.

How did your last competition for the Global Centre for Social Sciences go?
Interesting. We had five eminent architects submit schemes [Grafton, Heneghan Peng, Hopkins, OMA, Rogers]. There was not one stand out design they all were challenging and innovative in different ways. We didn’t make a decision at the first meeting of the Jury Panel and I said the LSE and the teams had further work to do - effectively a design workshop. However this brought me the attention of my very own on-line architect troll who knew nothing about me or our competition process but this didn’t stop him attacking me personally. I didn’t deign him with a reply.

Will there be future opportunities for smaller practices to get work? Yes, apart from the large set piece projects, like all universities we have a lot of churn projects, ranging from £100k- £5million.

These will be refurbishment and conversion of existing buildings in the main. We’ll be spending the best part of £400million on the estate over the next 10 years.

You went back to the design team to demand better eco-standards on the Lincolns Inn job. Is it you rather than architects who are driving the green agenda on your estate? Yes this is most definitely client led. In the main they are willing to respond but some are better equipped than others. Working for an ambitious employer who is prepared to put its money where its mouth is also helps me to pursue the sustainability agenda.

What do you want from an architect?
Ambition, Integrity, beauty, delight, environmental sustainability and challenge.

Do you have a motto?
‘Excellence does not consist only in single activities but habits’ Aristotle.

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