The Bartlett


Essay 10: Life imitates architecture

In the year it reopens its flagship building – 22 Gordon Street, Rebecca Spaven looks back at how The Bartlett’s own architecture has influenced the relationship between the faculty and its students.

Students in 1970 spoke of the building’s appealing ‘scruffy, radical image’; another described it as ‘seedy, creaky, end-stage colonial’

If you stand at the north end of Gower Street in London, home to UCL’s main Bloomsbury campus, to the right of what is now the George Farha Café, you’ll see a door. You’ve probably never noticed it before – it’s fairly unassuming and now has one of those ‘Fire Exit Keep Clear’ signs that don’t encourage a second look.

If you’d been standing on this spot at night-time 60 years ago, chances are you’d have seen a Bartlett student opening this door with a key and sloping inside for a night of deadline-hammering. You might have seen them come out a few hours later, bleary-eyed with a friend or two, or you might be waiting all night. Some of them slept in there.

Students of The Bartlett School of Architecture who inhabited the old Bartlett Building, in the NW corner of the UCL quad, spoke of it with the warmth and nostalgia of a favoured members’ club. A sense of exclusivity and ownership of the space was fostered by final-year students being entrusted with a key to this inauspicious side entrance, free to come and go as they pleased as the rest of the university slept.

This feeling of ownership clearly outlived some individuals’ terms as students. One alumna recalled a time when she decided to spend the night in the studio after a long day and woke to find a long since graduated student settling down for a nap after arriving on an overnight train to Euston, clearly having kept hold of his key.

The Bartlett Building was completed in 1914, after a donation was made by a shy and retiring benefactor, Sir Herbert Henry Bartlett. Designed by Professor FM Simpson, the building had generous space and facilities, with a sculpture room and cast gallery and capacious, bright, fifth floor studios. There were no architecture students in the building until 1919, however, as the building was immediately handed over to the government to be used as a temporary hospital for the duration of the First World War.

By the 1970s the building’s interiors had been thoroughly worn in by generations of students who, post-1968, had taken to daubing the walls with political graffiti and unsparing criticisms of the staff. Incoming students in 1970 spoke of its appealing “scruffy, radical image”; another described it as “seedy, creaky, end-stage colonial”.

The Bartlett remained in this building until 1975, when Wates House was opened. Recollections from students who bridged the gap between these two homes betray an ill-disguised dismay at the switch, moving from light-filled and spacious accommodation to a honeycomb, siloed space.

A building study in the Architects’ Journal generously described Wates House as ‘not a disaster’, and it was generally praised for its facilities and the fact that it brought the previously separate schools of Architecture and Town Planning under one roof. Over time, as predicted in the AJ article, the building ‘settled down’ and ‘decent grubbiness and indecent graffiti’ obscured the worst features.

Students in Wates House in the late-1970s spoke of a disrespect for the space that nonetheless encouraged a playful and rebellious engagement with it. One group, who named themselves ‘Atelier 43’, hijacked a seminar room, painting every surface black and creating a disorientating space that eventually became absorbed into the school’s routine, being used for crits until someone was hospitalised after bumping their head on the low entrance portal.

Bartlett student numbers continued to grow and yet their ambition never seemed to be checked by the constraints of Wates House. Visiting the top-floor library as an Art History student (for the panoramic view as much as the books on town planning history), it always struck me as a building that was used intensively, often past the point where it could cope. Now that Hawkins\Brown have split open the beehive with their designs for an open-plan reimagining of the building, who knows what they’ll achieve.

Rebecca Spaven is an MA Architectural History graduate and unofficial resident Bartlett historian. She is Communications Coordinator at The Bartlett faculty office. @RebeccaSpaven