In this new art and architecture building, each floor has been conceived as a mini-city in which neighbourly contact between the different disciplines is gently fostered
Unlike the previous two London schools discussed − the Royal College of Art and Central St Martins − London Metropolitan is not an internationally famous art and design college. Instead, it is a substantial university of some 23,000 students, an amalgamation of two former 19th-century polytechnics, within which the creative disciplines are but a cog in the larger educational machinery.
For many years refusing to take part in newspaper league tables (apparently on a point of principle), the university recently relented and debuted pretty much at the bottom, ranked this year by the Guardian as 118th in a list of 120 competitors. Yet more disturbingly, last August, the UK Border Agency noisily revoked London Met’s visa licence after what was described as a ‘serious systemic failure’, rendering the university unable to enrol foreign students.
Despite securing a reprieve, it has been a disastrous period for the London Met’s reputation. And yet in sharp contrast to the university’s blundering and chaotic public image, its architecture courses are increasingly highly regarded and attract − particularly at postgraduate level − very strong students. It has become the school of choice for many of the brightest design graduates from Cambridge (which no longer has a diploma) and other top British schools.
What attracts them? Largely it is the quality of the studio faculty. Operating under the unit system (popularised by Alvin Boyarsky’s AA in the 1970s-80s, of which the Dean of London Met is himself a product), here the units are much more identified with a ‘practice’ than an ‘individual’ − reflecting perhaps a larger shift over that time from the architect as avant-garde genius to pragmatic collaborator (an essay in itself).
Units are led by the principals of many of London’s most interesting small-to-mid-size practices: the AOC, Caruso St John, David Kohn, DSDHA, East, Lynch Architects, Pierre d’Avoine, Stephen Taylor, and so on. Where last month’s interview with Smout Allen described the Bartlett as a ‘pocket’ with its own definable culture, London Met is a ‘pocket’ of a similar status, but almost completely oppositional in culture: here the obsession is with architecture as a practice that must be socially-engaged and constructed.
Under the leadership of Robert Mull, the school’s repute has been shaped over the last decade and has of late hit a number of high notes. Last year Met students picked up two important prizes, winning the RIBA Silver Medal for a group project that developed a prototypical house, and coming runner-up in the AR’s Global Architecture Graduate Awards, for the Redundant Architects Recreation Association.
Uniting architecture and art
While enjoying greater recognition, the architecture school is unlikely to become complacent as it is currently relocating properties while simultaneously merging with other disciplines in the process. Already the Dean of Architecture, in 2011 Mull also took over art, media and design, and in August last year he conjoined the faculties to create the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design − known simply as the Cass.
‘Over the last 18 months there has been the move to bring everyone together,’ says Mull. ‘Architecture was on the Holloway Road in north London, and this will join the other subjects who were already in Aldgate, which is further east. It’s a journey that is going to take at least two years, and a crucial part of reinventing a new faculty is the spatial armature in which that operates.’
The new faculty will occupy two nearby buildings in Whitechapel. The crucible will be Central House, an early-1960s fabric warehouse and factory happily positioned opposite the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which was itself beautifully expanded by Robbrecht en Daem in 2009. Central House will contain the studio spaces for all the subjects: fine art, photography, printmaking, sculpture and performance, alongside product design, jewellery, architecture, urban design and planning. Further east on Commercial Road, the other building houses the workshops.
The remodelling of Central House is being designed by the ultimate London Met insiders, ARU (the Architectural Research Unit), which Florian Beigel and Philip Christou have been running there since the mid-1980s, with Architecture PLB acting as the delivery architects. What has been completed so far is a degree of stripping out and vertical connection between floorplates, and the creation of a single ‘landscape floor’, which is now occupied by 230 postgraduate architecture diploma students decanted from the Holloway Road buildings, on which the lease will soon be up.
The ‘landscape floor’ doesn’t describe AstroTurf and potted plants, but the architectural conception of how the building will organise social relationships in space. ‘ARU is very interested in the rug not the picnic,’ explains Mull. ‘They set up a very gentle, quite complex landscape infrastructure, which to one extent is entirely figured and tightly controlled, but at another level is entirely liberating, without being bland.’
The interest of the project is how an architecture of tightness and looseness − almost conflicting in ambition itself, or at least paradoxical − can be accommodated in an existing industrial building laid out on entirely different principles. For Central House is essentially logical and pragmatic: a six-storey edifice, rectangular in plan, with the entrance in the middle of the south-west long elevation, the lift and core in the middle of the north-east side, a central light well, and a pretty regular column structure.
‘We quite like the building, it has a robustness, honesty and simplicity,’ says Christou. ‘Inevitably when reusing a building, there’s a limit to how much you should do. We’re taking a pleasure in our insertions and the existing fabric having an equal, respectful dialogue between the old and the new.’
The fourth floor for the architecture diploma students was the first to be completed and reveals the architectural strategy. From the initial sketches, ARU wanted the plan to have a grain to it, creating a mixture of various scaled spaces, which could be programmed in different ways. The key to achieving this was Beigel’s idea to move the WCs away from the central light-well and this freed up the floor plan to enable the creation of something more urban in character.
The main stair core gives onto the primary long-axial route, which the practice calls the ‘boulevard’ − a term given credence by the generous width (more than just a corridor); the expression of the boundary walls (with articulated timber structure, windows and doors inset into them, so they read as ‘buildings’); the smaller ‘alleyways’ than feed into the boulevard; and the way that nothing quite lines up, like a city that has evolved over centuries rather than a plan that has been produced for efficiency.
Each architectural unit has its own space, those on the north-east side are enclosed rooms, which have windows and glazed doors, so that they have a ‘public’ interface; and those on the south-west side are open to the circulation. In the middle of the floor, away from the windows, are enclosed spaces that can be used for seminars, interviews, or whatever. Though the floor is designed to offer defined and ownable space for
the units, it creates an interaction-rich environment with multiple pathways between spaces − much like the urban setting that becomes the neighbourhood for families (or, in architectural parlance, ‘units’) and individuals.
The creation of a new culture
The art and architecture faculties were both large and successful enterprises in their own right, but they had previously never had any relationship with each other, being on different campuses, and, historically, in two different institutions. In bringing them together into the Cass, Mull felt it was important to establish common pedagogical structures. ‘The biggest one is something we’re familiar with in architecture, the unit system, and − through negotiation and discourse − we’ve introduced to all of the fine art and design subjects a sense of the practitioner-driven atelier,’ he says.
He has also encouraged the faculty to use London as a resource and location for work to be constructed. ‘The academic structures, the live project structures, the external reach, plus the building, taken together, are one. It would have been impossible to do it if we’d left disciplines entirely isolated or fragmented from each other.’ And the strategy seems to be effecting a culture change: ‘We started off with everybody saying, “Where’s my floor?”. And now it’s “Is there any reason why we can’t be there next to this person?”’
But the Cass isn’t extreme in its intent, or blind to differences; the building doesn’t seek to erase boundaries altogether, merely to create fertile creative and social borders. ‘We want to try to broker the ideal, subtle relationship between connectivity − the ability for individuals and disciplines to contact each other and bump into each other, to collaborate − and the sense that disciplines have their own prejudices and identity,’ says Mull. ‘The spatial arrangement is quite familiar in that it starts to treat floorplates as mini-cities in their own right, with a series of objects set into it, with connecting staircases.’
Mull is referring to the additional ‘domestic’ staircases that, cut as incisions in the existing fabric, connect two floors in unexpected places to supplement or circumvent the full vertical extension of the stair core. As Mull hopes: ‘When we curate the full use of the building, we will begin to inhabit it, not as courses separated on floors, but as clusters around staircases, around projects and around themes, rather than historic disciplinary alliances − and the building will allow that to happen.’
The second phase of the work is planned to take place over this summer and to be completed for the start of the next academic year this October. The first, second, third and fifth floors will be reworked into studio landscapes. The prototypical fourth floor is being used to test the significant variations other subjects might want. ‘Fine Art is having an open conversation about how far they want to be in a singular open space with some individual provisions, or how far they want to be in a series of studio rooms,’ he says. ‘What they’re really talking about is not what space they’re going to occupy, but what is the organisational, academic and emotional structure of an art school of the future.’
Central House is on one side of the busy roundabout where Spitalfields segues into Whitechapel, and while little will change the external appearance, there are plans to define the external identity. At ground level on the corner, there will be a café and restaurant, open to the public; and a large gallery space, which will act as faculty ‘shopfront’, and could also be used as a lecture hall. There will be a 200-seat lecture hall on the first floor, but a new one on the roof in a two-floor addition has been mooted, which would be ideal.
There is the intention to create public spine through the building culminating in a ‘pocket park’ on the roof (one of Met’s ‘live projects’), which will be a productive environment serving the restaurant, and a place where visitors can view the Rachel Whiteread sculpture on the front of the Whitechapel Gallery.
Unlike the other two schools, the Royal College of Art and Central St Martins, effectively on this project the client and the architect have been pretty much one and the same thing; where there has been friction, one imagines it (rightly or wrongly) more as a good-natured, almost teasing discussion between long-standing and trusting colleagues. And it is perhaps this closeness of the working team that has produced an identity for the building which is so unmistakably ‘London Met’.
‘There is an intimacy and authenticity about it, which might mean some of it is slightly troubled, but it’s a proper representation of who we are and where we are. It’s negotiated, and it’s partial, and it has a cultivated awkwardness to it, provisional and challenging and urban − and that’s good,’ says Mull, expressing just as much about the teaching methodology as its physical formation.
In all three schools featured in these articles, there has been a drive to break down disciplinary boundaries, almost forming a consensus − a dangerous thing surely? − between the art and design schools of London. It brings to mind the phrase ‘what makes good neighbours is often good fences’, prompting the speculation of if and when disciplines will start pushing back, or find new ways of defending their territories.
But Mull sees it in a much less combative light. ‘It’s like a good dinner party,’ he says. ‘We’re not forcing people to talk to their neighbour, but we’re putting them next to each other and seeing what happens.’