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London Schools Part Two: Central St Martin's by Stanton Williams

At the centre of the vast King’s Cross regeneration project, the new home for Central St Martins is a bold gambit in an emerging urban landscape

While last month’s look at the Royal College of Art showed an institution essentially splitting into two halves, both Central St Martins (CSM) and London Metropolitan are engaged in the obverse process of consolidation. The challenge facing all three London schools is, of course, how to make a culture − as much a social as a creative one − but for the two schools being discussed this and next month, the challenge has the larger dimension of bringing together disparate parts to make a new whole. For CSM, this unites all but two of 11 buildings scattered round the capital, and for London Met it combines the architecture and art schools for the first time.

Both projects inhabit an existing physical structure, but the crucial distinction is one of scale. London Met is the baby of the group, a newly-formed faculty within a low ranking university of 30,000 students, whereas CSM is an international powerhouse, one of the world’s largest and most venerated art and design institutions.


The Cubitt building in its original form

Central St Martins

CSM stands out from grander competitors on lists of the world’s top creative schools by being punkier and more daring. In the London design firmament, its star shines as brightly as the RCA. But where the latter perhaps has more kudos for its design courses (product, industrial, etc), the former leads in fashion, having launched Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Katharine Hamnett and many others. What isn’t obvious from their popular perception is how strikingly dissimilar in size the schools are: CSM has 4,200 students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level; whereas the RCA has 1,200 students, and only postgraduates.

Initially, Stanton Williams won a competition to add to CSM’s cramped accommodation in Holborn, but this plan was abandoned in favour of amalgamating onto the 67-acre regeneration site north of King’s Cross and St Pancras train stations. Opening in October 2011, the subsequent design is a refurbishment of Lewis Cubitt’s 1851 Grade II-Listed Granary Building and transit sheds, combined with a 200m-long new-build addition at the rear.


The rear elevation is the entrance for the theatre. New build fills in between the existing transit sheds, with the two train stations glimpsed in the distance

The internal organisation is easily sketched. Circulation is essentially crucifix in plan, but you enter on the short leg (as if from the chancel end of a church), through the centre of the Cubitt facade. The Granary Building is mostly given over to the library (placed here so students could gain round-the-clock access), and beyond it is a cross-axial route, on the other side of which is the building’s largest volume, known as ‘the street’. Teaching accommodation is ranged either side of this central space: the eastern transit shed configured as a flow diagram for materials being delivered and progressing through the workshops, while the western transit shed contains ground-level restaurant and retail facing outwards to what will be a busy public thoroughfare. The farthest end is terminated by the drama centre’s theatre.

Behind this logical disposition, however, the architecture is quietly radical in two regards − by dissolving the traditional barriers between the departments within the college; and by dissolving the traditional boundaries between the college and the city. And if the first has been an exercise in changing the institution’s internal dynamics, then the second has been driven by its extrinsic relationship with King’s Cross.

Floor Plans

Floor Plans

Forging a relationship to the city

Developed by Argent, the masterplan sought to emphasise the regenerative impact of bringing CSM to the site, and therefore the interface of public and private became of paramount importance. ‘There was a lot of talk about how introverted or not are art and design schools,’ says architect Paul Williams. ‘Certainly educationally, you can’t just have the public walking round, but you want them to see what’s going on − to be able to see the quality of work being produced within the college.’ 

Essentially the public can walk through the Granary Building and the east-west cross axis, but access to ‘the street’ is restricted to college insiders. English Heritage had prevented Stanton Williams from expressing the college’s interior life on the Granary Building’s Grade II-listed facade (their idea was subtle, animated screens over the later office wings), and so this threshold between the cross axis and ‘the street’ could have become an important alternative facade. 


Despite the gestural concrete planes attempting to articulate an ‘entrance’, the junction between the east-west axis and the ‘street’ is disappointingly made by swipe-card gates

For this reason the use of card-access gates, as if entering the London Underground, does feel a particularly inglorious ‘front door’ to the college. As a boundary it is either too strong or too weak, neither allowing full movement into ‘the street’ nor enclosing it sufficiently to define it as its own space. The street compares slightly unfavourably with the large volumes in other London cultural destinations, lacking the drama of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the spatial unfolding of the neighbouring British Library, and denied purpose as a pedestrian cut-through like the British Museum’s Great Court. 

Of course, as the architects are up-front about, this compromise results from balancing the college’s needs for private space with the urban imperative for public. But it is as if ‘the street’ was conceived at the scale of the masterplan and doesn’t develop much further. Even the name conjures the hackneyed label from countless schools and corporate campuses to describe the ‘heart’ of the building. 

If we are to take the metaphor further, this would be a street suffering from a deep recession. Most of the ground-level edges are lifeless; only the cafeteria opens onto and spills into it. The theatre neither choreographs a processional route outwards, nor makes a proper connection to inwards, suggesting a spatial (and perhaps institutional) remoteness from the college. On quiet days (such as I’ve seen it) the street risks drifting into the sterile world of the shopping mall, or even the office atrium.

But, ultimately the question is how well does − or potentially, can − the street frame the social life of the college, and here there is some debate. ‘It works for students and staff alike,’ says Jeremy Till, the noted architect and theorist who is now head of CSM. ‘It acts as a classic social condenser. In terms of me being a leader, it turns it into collaborative leadership, because you’re there and communicating with people. It has a huge effect on the way that people work here.’


The ‘street’ awaits a secondary layer of infrastructure to enable it to be more easily used for other types of event

But some of the students have been critical. Shortly after the building opened, one group, the U Choose Collective, scattered coloured flyers like confetti in the street and hung a banner over a bridge walkway to advertise a picnic. ‘After half an hour, staff came to take them down and cleaned the street from the rainbow we created,’ reported their blog, adding plaintively, ‘we didn’t vandalise, we just threw coloured paper.’ 

This is the kind of rebellion you would expect (and perhaps even encourage) in art students, and it is no doubt a natural process of acclimatising to the new environment, the adjustment as a creative model rubs up against a more corporate one. It is the sort of contested territory that the intellectual provocateur Jeremy Till must have taken to like a duck to water when he joined the college after the building’s completion. And indeed, when it escalated to graffiti on one timber wall protesting the proscription to paint it, Till framed the ribald commentary, hoping (I guess) that a half-celebration of dissent would be more effective than its full-hearted prosecution.


Interventions have started to inhabit the east-west route, such as Black Maria by Richard Wentworth and GRUPPE, which opened in February

And, as Till acknowledges, how space is occupied still needs developing: ‘The street we haven’t quite got working right yet,’ he says. ‘It needs a level of infrastructure. It’s quite difficult to put stuff in it, because it’s so overwhelming. It needs an intermediate-scaled infrastructure, lighting and frameworks, so it becomes more easy to use; something in between the scale of a body and the overall volume, up to about six metres, and after that you can let it go.’

While these additions are forthcoming (one of the architecture faculty is designing them), the public space has already started to be used in new ways. Earlier this year an installation by Richard Wentworth and Swiss practice GRUPPE opened in the cross street. Called Black Maria after Edison’s first motion picture studio, it encourages different forms of occupation. When I saw it before it opened, three male models lounging in double-breasted suits had clambered over the barriers for an impromptu photo shoot, making a fitting appropriation before the curated series of events kicked off. 

Section Drawings

Section Drawings

Dissolving disciplinary boundaries

The other radical act of the building is the integration of the facilities of the various academic programmes. Space-utilisation analysis of the previous stock discovered that many of the spaces were underused and that there was also duplication of facilities. ‘What happened in the previous buildings is that each of the courses basically built a wall round them, and there was not much interaction,’ explains Till. ‘The incredibly brave move of this building is to say, “That no longer goes”.’

The decision was taken to make all the workshops shared, and to distribute them throughout the building. ‘As soon as the workshops are distributed then student life is distributed,’ continues Till. ‘And now the workshops are shared − spatially and also logistically − it means that all those disciplinary boundaries are dissolved immediately.’ He is convinced it is working: ‘I’m not one to say that transparency is democratic, but students and staff definitely all say that the building, by making things visible, suddenly makes things available − creatively and intellectually.’


The fashion school is very important in the college hierarchy of disciplines, and occupies top-lit studios in the eastern transit shed

CSM has also introduced shared ownership of studio space between the departments. This is a very different proposition to fixed studios, and some types of work have gone further than others: 2D work retains more personal space; 3D has bigger spaces that must be let out if you want to make a large piece of work; and 4D is much more shared as the intention is that these students will work collaboratively. ‘The cultural shift has been most dramatic in fine art,’ says Till. ‘They are now sharing space, and that has changed it from an individual sitting in a room waiting for the muse to strike, to a much more dynamic, negotiated set of practices.’ 

Shared project and teaching spaces have to be booked, but there are additional social learning spaces that students can just pitch up to. With this thrust toward integration, how the building encourages the social interaction of the school has been addressed in the design. Most specifically, staff and students share the canteen, the roof terrace, and the new bar, which opened recently in a space by the theatre foyer. But more informally, there is, of course, the street and its elevated walkways and 5m-wide bridges.

Stanton Williams always wanted this to be a building that would allow for CSM’s evolution. ‘For us, we felt, the studios should be like warehouses: heavy loadings, big floor plans, daylight wherever possible,’ says Williams. ‘The scheme was predicated on the college coming in, inhabiting the building, and continuing to change. The architectural framework fixes certain things, but predominantly it’s there to allow expression. The ballsiness of it, the challenge it sets, is that when you enter as staff and students, you’ve got to develop it as you see fit.’


The library occupies most of the Granary Building, and is open to all University of the Arts students

And this conception of it is one over which CSM is taking increasing ownership. ‘At our recent away day we set some principles about our future organisation, and the number one bullet point was that we have to work with the building, we can’t work against it,’ says Till. ‘The principle of the building allows us to be restless because it doesn’t tie us down into a fixed type of working space. That takes a huge cultural shift and we haven’t got it immediately right. But we’ve only been here a year and it’s a work in progress. The building has a generosity which will allow us to move around and keep changing, as we are already.’

On the one hand, the erosion of disciplinary boundaries has been generated by the need to use space more efficiently. And the desire to save money is perfectly legitimate − even essential, given the changes in higher education funding. But art and design schools must also be judged on a different scale of values, and the really interesting thing over the coming years will be to see how far this new proximity generates creative intensity. There are many metrics for how a building performs, but in this case it must ultimately be judged on the quality of the work produced by the students, whether it will match − or even exceed − CSM’s trailblazing history.

Fact File

Architect: Stanton Williams
Photographs: Hufton + Crow

Next month’s article will be on the new art and design faculty of London Metropolitan University


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