The Bartlett’s 22 Gordon Street has attracted plenty of industry attention. But how is the building standing up to its first year of occupancy? We find out what users think. Words: Veronica Simpson
When 22 Gordon Street – formerly Wates House – reopened its doors to students in early 2017, the contrast with its predecessor could hardly have been more marked: now the concrete bones of the old, sealed-in bunker of a building form the skeleton of a new, expanded structure.
The Architects’ Journal celebrated its transformation with a review by Bartlett School of Architecture alumnus Jean-Jacques Lorraine (of Morrow + Lorraine), who declared the building “light-filled, open-minded and open-hearted”. Instead of a squat, cellular fortress, which whisked inhabitants up side stairs or lifts into hermetically sealed departmental silos, now there is clarity and transparency on all levels.
The dynamic heart of the building – psychologically, if not geographically – is the angular black steel staircase towards the rear, which pulses staff and students up and down its attractive oak treads. Visible even from the new Gordon Street entrance, it makes usage unavoidable, according to Dr Penelope Haralambidou at The Bartlett of School of Architecture: “The new focal staircase has been really successful in adding transparency, interaction and movement. I promised myself that I will only use the staircase and it is proving a good way to bump into everyone.”
It also provides a strong, sculptural element to a building that manages to be civic, elegant, engaging and highly sociable, but avoids the pitfalls of statement architecture – deliberately so, say Euan Macdonald and Tom Noonan, the project leads for architects Hawkins\Brown. “We tried very hard not to make it iconic. We have a problem with that word, it’s so loaded. We think it has presence but it’s not a showy building. It’s like a framework, a backdrop to the school,” says Macdonald.
This must have been a tough line to preserve when working with a skilled and opinionated client team, many of whom will have had far more radical notions of what the building should look like. But within tight budgetary, conservational and cultural constraints, Hawkins\Brown has achieved an admirable marriage of the old structure with the new, expanding the available space via a full-height extension, floor additions, and a clever envelope hung over the original frame which allowed them to push the interior space out another 1.5m on three sides.
Through these measures, a specially designed ‘Gordon Street Klinker’ brick (see box, ‘Made to measure’), and relocating the library and drama theatre to adjacent sites, there is now a desk for every one of the department’s 850 students, where before there was room for just over 300. “In addition,” says Macdonald, “we have designed in as much loose, unprogrammed space as possible, which the building lacked.”
These loose spaces include an exhibition area in the ground floor foyer, where The Bartlett School of Architecture held its 2017 Summer Show – the first time it has been able to host it ‘at home’ in years. Then there are the open landings that spin off the staircase at each level, leading to flexible work and meeting rooms around the perimeter, which enjoy – unlike in Wates House – ample daylight and vistas onto this eclectic urban quarter.
Hawkins\Brown sees the new building as a ‘social generator,’ broadcasting the energy contained within it from the grid of windows that perforate the elegant, grey-brick façade. It’s a building that now engages with the surrounding streetscape and culture, as well as that within its walls. As the reviewer in The Architects’ Journal declared: “The rigour and clarity of the plan and section delight, and bring a real sense of meaning to the brokerage between outside and inside.”
So, what effect has this physical transformation had on the school’s more than 1,000 occupants? The most obvious one is that students are now a presence in the building: the previous lack of desk space, according to Noonan, an alumnus of The Bartlett, “meant that nobody ever came in to work; we all worked at home”. Professor Alan Penn, Dean of The Bartlett, says: “Having a visible staircase makes such a difference, compared to what the old building was like. And going to much more open studio spaces has radically changed what it’s like in terms of mixing between years.”
Placing units and year groups in discrete clusters within an open studio format was trialled during the school’s two-year relocation to a site on Hampstead Road. It proved hugely popular with students, so it has been transferred to the new building. In fact, Penn quips: “You can’t really tell the difference between the undergraduates and the postgraduates anymore...which is a bit worrying.”
However, when asked if the culture of the school has changed significantly, Penn says: “I think it’s probably early days.” He refers to the old building as a “very political one”. Its strict segmentation encouraged an atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue: if a member of staff was seen outside their usual department floor it “led lots of people to putting two and two together and making ten.” Having a central staircase used by everyone has definitely cleared the air: “there’s no question whether you should be there or not. The atmosphere in school now is less political.”
As for the students, one graduate, who spent two years in the interim Hampstead Road space and completed his degree in 2017, calls the new building “a thousand times better” in terms of work space. “Having a whole desk and three shelves is way better than having half a desk and one shelf,” he says. He appreciates the daylight and the studios’ open floor plan. “It never gets old”, he says. “There’s always another route through.”
There have been, as ever, a few teething problems. Some students have grumbled that the landings are too acoustically leaky to function as crit spaces and too dark to work in. There were also issues with overheating on the hottest summer days, especially on the upper floors. Macdonald explains that the building has opening windows, which should help regulate the building temperature but – perhaps counter-intuitively – these should not be opened when it is hotter outside than in. At this point, the building’s ventilation and cooling system should kick in. But this requires inhabitants to pay attention to a “traffic-light” indicator system on each floor and respond.
Shutting windows when it’s hot is not the most logical of actions, so there will be training for the facilities management team, staff and students. Ultimately, Macdonald says: “The theory is that the systems are intelligent and minimise energy consumption, and also that users learn to adapt their environment according to seasonal variations.”
A full post-occupancy evaluation is planned. “As for the landings,” Macdonald says, “they were conceived as raw, flexible areas, evolving over time.” Acoustics can be addressed if problematic. In the meantime, “supplementary power and lighting have already been added to maximise their usage”.
Providing a truly fit-for-purpose, 21st-century architecture school – one that carves out a dramatically different typology and culture within an existing building frame in a protected urban setting – is a huge achievement in itself. Industry awards (see box, ‘Award winner’) point to widespread peer approval. But perhaps the last word should go to a student. Ellie Sampson, year 5 MArch, experienced every recent iteration of the school and declares: “It feels like all the aspects I enjoyed about Wates House have been retained and very much improved upon.”
Made to measure
Why the Gordon Street Klinker isn’t just another brick in the wall
The elegant bricks that cover 22 Gordon Street deserve closer scrutiny as to their colour and composition, according to geologist and UCL Student Mediator Dr Ruth Siddall.
Siddall analysed a specimen of the ‘Gordon Street Klinker’, which was made for the project to the architects’ specifications by German brick makers Janinhoff. In order not to bulk-out the building, and to free up every inch of its interior space, the Gordon Street Klinker is slimmer and longer than a standard brick.
Measuring 290 x 52 x 70mm, 140,000 of them were used on the façade. They are water-struck to ensure a high moisture content, and twice fired at maximum temperatures of 1,200 ̊C. This process leaves marks on the brickís surface, from ‘firing ghosts’, which pattern the bricks, as do oxidising marks revealing where they touched while in the kiln.
Using polarising light microscopy, Siddall examined thin slices of the brick to reveal mineral particles of quartz, flint, feldspar and zircon, indicating granitic rocks in their source material. Such a mix is typical of northern European brick stock, which helped reassure the planning authorities that this 21st century architecture school would have the right aesthetic and civic properties to blend into the surrounding Conservation Area.
Images: Francesco Montaguti, Jack Hobhouse, Aaron Tilley