The Guardian

The serious one

Opening soon to students and the public, University College London’s flexible Marshgate campus, designed by Stirling prize-winners Stanton Williams, is all complex drama within, yet its forbidding exterior sits somewhat uneasily with its Olympic Park neig

UCL East Marshgate

University College London, nearly 200 years old, consistently ranking among the top 10 universities in the world, and one of the biggest in the UK, is embarking on the largest expansion in its history – a projected 180,000 sq metres (or one and half Shards) of academic and living spaces. It is doing this on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, as part of East Bank, the grand plan to anchor the legacy of London 2012 with weighty institutions of culture and knowledge.

Marshgate, a 33,500 sq metres, £250m building for research and teaching, where students will start working later this month, is the first publicly accessible manifestation of this new world. It stands near an array of facilities for the V&A, the BBC and Sadler’s Wells in various stages of completion, and for the London College of Fashion, which will also open shortly. Next door to Marshgate is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the twisty tower of red metal by Anish Kapoor, Cecil Balmond and Kathryn Findlay, and it’s close to the stadium where Mo Farah and Usain Bolt won their medals, now tenanted by West Ham United football club.

Taken as a whole, this postOlympic endeavour combines genuine achievement and intelligence with some compromises and missteps. Individual buildings are designed with confidence and skill by accomplished architects and serve admirable purposes, while the greenery of the park provides an accommodating medium for the multiplicity of structures within it, but there’s a tendency for wholes to be less than the sum of the parts. There’s a shortage of strong overall ideas for the places created by all this investment and design.

You can see this combination of confidence and flawed cohesion in the emerging structures of East Bank, a lineup of variegated designs by Allies and Morrison and O’Donnell + Tuomey. Marshgate is designed by Stanton Williams, whose crafted and considered projects include the archive for the collections of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in Aldeburgh, and the Stirling prize-winning Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge.

The stated aim of the project is to break down academic silos and to allow creative chance encounters. It is, says UCL, “a building designed for collaboration”. No one faculty will be based there; instead it will house new cross-disciplinary courses that, for example, allow artists, architects, engineers and computer scientists to work together on an art and technology course. Its eight floors are therefore structured as three “vertical neighbourhoods”, each with its own double-height “collaboration space” built over a two-storey base containing a cafe, a “community hub”, a lecture theatre and other uses that can be shared with the general public.

A full-height atrium rises through the middle, muscly and built to last, all deep beams and sturdy columns, with the emphatic horizontals of terraces and landings offset by the slants of stairs and escalators rising through the space. It is imposing and inward-looking, offset by broad external balconies and glass walls through which you can see the world beyond. Its straight lines and simple geometry are given complexity by the layers of spaces that surround it. It is a hive built by bees adept at right angles and reinforced concrete.

The atrium is intended to be a fixed piece of architecture, though one animated by art, the liveliness of its users and whatever else the future might bring. The working spaces around it – laboratories, studios, a fabrication workshop – are designed to be flexible, so that they can respond to the fast-moving disciplines that they serve. They are punctuated by a refectory and a staff common room, dignified and light-filled rooms with pillars and lofty ceilings that speak of highminded institutions.

The exterior doesn’t give much clue to the drama and complexity of the interior. Its cuboid shapes are dominated by the repeating verticals of narrow concrete fins that from a distance make it positively forbidding, a learning factory or a high security knowledge facility, notwithstanding the attempts of some large openings

and projecting bays and balconies to communicate its inner life. Closer up, you see subtleties and enrichment. A sumptuous array of concrete finishes, from smooth to pebbly to board-marked, with pleasingly sharp transitions from one to another, beautifully catch the light. The fins are angled and get narrower as they go up the building, both of which details modify the initial bluntness.

The whole building, inside and out, is realised with a disciplined beige-brown range of semiindustrial materials. There are several types of sand-coloured concrete, rust-coloured steel, birch plywood, smoked oak and not much else. The effect is to unify a large and complicated structure and impart a ubiquitous sense of quality and permanence. It helps the building do what it does best, which is to be an exemplary, in places majestic, manifestation of modernist principles of form, plan and detail. Visiting it on a dazzling September day, with the sun picking out its angles, I felt myself transported to some mid-century western embassy in a tropical capital, designed by a distinguished practice in the home country.

This somewhat relentless palette, though, doesn’t seem to be the obvious way to foster the hoped-for serendipitous vivacity. It’s difficult, for example, to fix pictures to concrete and steel, and some works by recent graduates that have been installed struggle to hold their own against the scale and hardness of the structure. While the general public will be invited into the building, and to use its ground floor cafe, the materials don’t do much to say welcome, or to evoke a place of tea and cakes. I sort-of appreciate the design’s austerity, and you certainly wouldn’t want a shopping mall’s levels of ingratiation, but there have to be ways in which it might unbend.

The building as a whole makes a solitary and odd companion to its neighbour the Orbit and to the stadium beyond. This is partly due to the fact that Marshgate is only the first of four blocks to be built on its plot – the uses and timelines of the others are yet to be decided - under a masterplan by LDA Design. But you still don’t get much positive sense of what the spaces around it are meant to be like, beyond having nice trees and seating, or what the whole ensemble might be. Perhaps unconsciously, Stanton Williams seem to have reacted to the collective vagueness by making it more defensive and introspective than it needs to be.

It’s too early to draw final conclusions on the combined effect of East Bank’s other big cultural institutions, but the current indications are that they too will struggle to cohere. The V&A’s building, by O’Donnell + Tuomey, is an angular alien beast, seemingly ready to spring from its pointed feet, whose blank walls and faceted geometry speak the language of iconic cultural architecture. The London College of Fashion, by Allies and Morrison, is bulky and workmanlike, with only a sawtooth skyline to suggest that this is a place of creativity and not an office block. The BBC and Sadler’s Wells structures are somewhere, on the spectrum from artistic to efficient, between the other two. They’re all handsome, but they don’t really join up.

The Olympic Park, it cannot be said too often, is largely a joy and a triumph. It’s good to have children’s playgrounds next to a huge stadium, as you do here, and Abba Voyage and Sadler’s Wells and advanced learning and serious architecture all in the same location. If only its buildings could speak more to each other and to their surroundings, it would be great indeed.

It is a hive built by bees adept at right angles and reinforced concrete