Beyond the here and WOW! in university architecture

Last month the London School of Economics (LSE) announced the winner of an architectural competition for a building to house its new Global Centre for Social Sciences.  I was prepared to dislike any winner on principle – on the principle that a university shouldn’t spend 90 million pounds on a new building – in which, primarily, to study poverty, injustice and exclusion – at a time of national cut-backs and spiralling student debt. I actually dislike the winning design practice too.

LSE has chosen Rogers Strik Harbour + Partners (RSHP) to design its new Centre, a design that will add little of value to the university or city surrounding it.

The winning RSHP design for LSE's new Global Centre for Social Sciences

The winning RSHP design for LSE’s new Global Centre for Social Sciences

RSHP was responsible for the Lloyds Building in London and is a global force in architecture, indeed a global brand that can be recognised by their “inside-out” use of structural elements on the exterior of buildings.

The fantastical Lloyds Building inLOndon

The fantastical Lloyds Building in London

Its not the exterior of the LSE building that I mind so much, its the plan for the ground floor. Almost the entire ground floor will be used for a Food Court and Bar. These facilities will be placed behind a reception area that will make it difficult for people who are not members of the LSE community to access them. Whilst the ground floor looks like it will be fronted in glass, suggesting a gesture towards transparency, few public street  doors have been planned turning these windows in to walls.

The ground floor plan for the new LSE Centre

The ground floor plan for the new LSE Centre

We all get hungry – and the sharing of food plays an important role in the creation of conversation and innovation – however is a massive, enclosed Food Court really the best use of a ground floor at a public institution in the heart of London? Can’t LSE offer the city more than glimpses of its students eating sandwiches?*

Surely an innovation centre for student start-ups or exhibition space, even a TV studio where LSE professors broadcast their fantastic lectures to a wider audience, would have made a better use of the space – and given a more accurate representation of what LSE is about.

Ground floor windows especially could have communicated what LSE works for – social justice, global prosperity and environmental sustainability – to the passing public of the city, rather than what it plans to have for lunch.

Universities have always invested disproportional sums on WOW architecture – think about King’s College Chapel in Cambridge or the Sainsbury Centre by Foster at the University of East Anglia or Gehry at MIT.

The Sainsbury Centre at UEA by Foster - though come to thinkof it, this wall of glass likewise gives a view of a cafe...

The Sainsbury Centre at UEA by Foster – though come to thinkof it, this wall of glass likewise gives a view of a cafe…

In part this has always been about building the status and “brand” of a university – but it has been equally about raising expectations. The beautiful, inspiring and uplifting buildings that can be found on the best university campuses remind us that there is a mission beyond the immediate and that universities work humbly (well…) and creatively in the service of humanity towards goals that lie far out on the horizon. We won’t be here when those goals are reached and thus our buildings have a vital role to play in providing continuity, especially continuity of aspiration, for those who come after us. I am not certain that the design chosen by LSE, especially at the ground level, has the capacity to raise and sustain expectations in this manner.

So, RSHP have made their name by putting the inside on the outside – at least when it comes to the structural elements of buildings. Isn’t this a design principle that LSE can take from RSHP’s work and consider how LSE can likewise put its “inside” of questioning, educating and exploring on the outside?

LSE is world famous for its ideas – not its food – please make these visible in this very expensive new building.

*In all fairness to RSHP,  it is the design brief from LSE for the building that requires that the ground floor be given over to food and social spaces; I’m sure RSHP could have thought of better uses.


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