Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Central St Martins
December 13, 2011Posted by on
(With apologies to Richard Hamilton for the title.) My last post was on the Central St Martins College of Art and Design at Kings cross – an impressive development. It reminded me of something similar: the Ravensbourne School of Art that opened on the Greenwich peninsula in 2010 – somewhere I visited earlier this year. There are parallels worth considering.
The GreenwichPeninsula is notably the home of the 2000 Dome designed by Richard Rogers (well, actually, his partner, Mike Davies, the obsessively ‘all-in-red’ partner). It’s still an amazing building. Although, in its guise as the O2 Dome, somebody has worked very hard to provide a dreadful interior that mocks what the Rogers team achieved. Next door there is a Foster bus station (same date) sitting over one of the better Jubilee Line stations, designed by Will Alsop (again, same date).
Toward the opposite, southern, edge of the peninsula is some hosting (etc) by Ralph Erskine, together with a school by Ted Cullinan. In between is … not a lot. The focus of current development is this housing area and around the Dome. So far, the latter has two new additions: a pretty dreadful office building by Terry Farrell (who claims responsibility for the peninsula master-plan) and the the Ravensbourne school, design by Foreign Office (before they split up).
Ravensbourne was a significant school located out in deepest Kent – an institution that thought a few daring moves would bring it additional prominence. There were two keys to this: a move toward central London and all that is happening there; and a dumping of the school’s craft basis in lieu of a turn to digitisation. The Greenwich peninsula was the chosen site; lots of computers facilitated the second aim. But there was more. The Director was keen on a ‘Ryanair’ principle of education: you give students a ticket into the school, provide them with a charged up credit card, and then deduct from that card for every move they subsequently make.
Foreign Office’s response to the proposal and the site (and a low budget) was simple: a raw concrete shell with two atria and a split-level divide – all meant to lend tough architectonic character to an otherwise simple interior – and an external ‘wrap’ of bold Penrose tiled panelling, complete with large circular windows letting light into the interior. Oh, all that plus a roof terrace. How this has been handled is very good, but the problem is the underlying ethos of the school and a divorce between that ‘wrap’ and an interior architecture. In fact, ‘divorce’ of one kind or another seems to characterise the whole place, including between educational aspirations and the realities of student life.
One approaches our exercise in Penrose tiling from the Alsop / Foster station, walking past acres of advertising telling us what a wonderful, thriving commercial and cultural area all this will one day be … Meanwhile its Dome+Ravensbourne+Farrell: three buildings with nothing to do with one another, juxtaposed with the pretension of engendering welcoming public spaces in between. Well, its’s OK on a sunny summer’s day, but … its gets pretty cold and windy out there during the rest of the year. Why, if Ravensbourne were serious about making London connections didn’t they get right into the heart of London. That was mistake no. One. Mistake no. two was awarding the design competition to what is, typologically, a dressed-up industrial shed – a nice dressed-up industrial shed, but not convincing as a place where young creative types will hang out, nor convincing in urbanistic terms, adding nothing to the area around the Dome. What a missed opportunity!
Overall, the similarities and disparities between the Farrell office building and the Ravensbourne School building are instructive. Both employ patterned wraps to a quite distinct interiority. One has portholes, the other has conventional rectangular windows; one is sophisticated, the other is not. Ravensbourne enjoys two internal atria; Farrell has none … But the sophistication of the art school’s gamesmanship is all there is. Otherwise, both share a fundamentally similar building typology: pavilions plonked down in a flat, wind-swept landscape. At least the Dome provides what could be considered to be a traditional arcade around its perimeter that provides shelter and a welcoming intermediate feature between inside and outside. Neither building has anything to do with Central St Martins, especially Ravensbourne. Admitedly, the latter’s site had none of the advantages of Kings Cross, but that was possibly the fundamental error in site selection. And then the School chose a scheme that strives to do what Herzog & de Meuron did at the Laban (a couple of miles away): provide a tight-skinned shed with a dramatic interior architectonic. It works beautifully at the Laban, but not here. Why do I feel that a pile of old containers might have been more appropriate?
December 13, 2011Posted by on
One of the more peculiar experiences in my life was sitting midst the Foster team at Kings Cross, sometime in the late ‘eighties. There were playing at being master-planners. I was playing at being an office building consultant … Yeah, well … Myself and another chap I was with came up with a way of approaching site potentiality issues which was meant to inform the design work. However, the Foster team lived in another, strange kind of universe. What was most intriguing was the politics of seeing Associates almost rip each other’s throats out in order to win some game of rivalry and get ahead with this week’s brightest idea that would impress The Man when he turned up.
Why do I tell you this? Well, it all came back to me a few week ago when I went to visit the first significant building to be completed in the new Kings Cross master plan (more than 25 years after the Foster experience, I might add): one of London’s most prestigious art schools housed in the very same early (and, of course, Listed) Victorian train sheds that had been a key feature of our consultancy all those years ago. These buildings were quite something: imagine multi-storey warehouses sitting above a canal that linked the metropolis to northern England and served as a monstrous transport interchange between the canal and the railway system. It had once been an incredible scene … Now, the complex of historic buildings formed the core to a schema put together by Stanton Williams for the Kings Cross developer (Argent) and its star cultural client: Central St Martins College of Art and Design. Once, developers turned to art pieces (think of somewhere like Broadgate and Canary Wharf); now, they wanted an whole art institution as the ‘strawberry’. (Sorry: Japanese concept from the ’90s. It is exemplified at More London, where the Shuttleworth / Foster City Hall is located and plays out the same role of ‘strawberry’ – in this case almost literally – to the commercial development.)
The day began well: breakfast in old St Pancras Station – now home to the Eurostar trains from Paris – midst crowding commuters and hungry travellers doing something similar to us on the lower concourse level … Then out past the new work on Kings cross Station (sorry, Mr McAslan, it doesn’t look promising!) and along a new pedestrian way that lead past a host of sites for new office buildings, straight to the front door of the newly opened CSM, now welcoming a fresh 2011 intake of enthusiastic students. Everywhere around us were men working, machines digging, concrete being poured, barriers channelling us … and midst it all was the historic complex of former industrial buildings, now supplemented by new accommodation that knit together, added to and occasionally took away some old bits (leaving intriguing ‘scarring’). Simply at that overall, master-planning level it is all rather impressive (and radically different from what Foster had proposed).
We met with the Job Architect who very kindly was giving up some two hours of his time to show us around: into reception and security checks, signing in, badging up … (‘who? why” … Oh, here: have a badge and go through there …’) and back out to public areas topped by an inflated pillow roof before entering through the CSM security barrier and into a large new atrium that serves as the centre of gravity of the new architectural schema.
All kinds of memories and references crowded in: particularly Neils Torp at Waterside, at Heathrow Airport, and Ron Herron at Imagination … Oddly, the Job Architect hadn’t experienced these … Ravensbourne?, I asked. Yes, he’d been there a few times and we all agreed we detested this 2010 exercise a few miles away on the Greenwich Peninsula – a most peculiar exercise in digitising craft traditions (‘fashion student? well, you can work it up on machine and print it – whatever it is – on a large printing machine; yes, sure, it all ends up 2D, but what the hell… Oh, and by the way this place works on the Ryan-Air principle of education: you pay to get in, pay to move about, pay for absolutely everything …) Yuk. Foreign Office had done a good enough job (although I’m not keen on their Penrose-tiled wrapping facade that has zero to do with internal arrangements), but the conceptual basis of Ravensbourne is depressing. Luckily, CSM isn’t anything like that. On that basis alone the place is profoundly impressive. I loved what Stanton Williams had sought to achieve and where that had succeeded …. However, this the 21st century: they were under the control of the main contractor and and had no influence over the fit-out. Pringle Brandon handled that. Now imagine: One of the UK’s most ‘creative’ organisations hands over the control of its new building to contractors and their value-engineers who then take on board two disparate architectural firms – one for shell and core, and the other for the ‘scenery’ of a fit-out (I told you I had an offices consultancy background). If SW were on target all the way through, PB were equally off-target. Their work wasn’t ‘bad’, it’s just that the ‘tone’ was utterly wrong for this kind of institution. Where SW offered gutsy but carefully considered detailing, PB gave us corporate furniture and effete detailing. Ultimately, it was depressing – I was back to living midst the Foster team. Such is life, such is predicament of today’s architects, such is the constraints upon what they can do … as Herman Hertzberger, the RIBA 2011 Gold Medal winner lamented. I was still bemused by the irony with which an institution like CSM could oversee such an equation and had, it seemed, exercised little taste or influence upon the fit-out. How on earth could an ostensibly ‘creative’ organisation of such repute allow this to happen?
And so we made out ‘thank-you’s’ and headed off – impressed, but only in a qualified way. If only SW had been allowed to follow through! God save us from the construction industry’s ‘practical men’ and the project managers and the client execs and … So, we were back at St Pancras station. And now it was other kinds of memories: of coming here to the renovated Midland Hotel of George Gilbert-Scott on a tour of its public and private spaces with a group of camera-clicking Russian interior designers … That was equally weird and redolent with the same keynotes of mismatch and corporate misses (this time between Scott’s amazing old hotel of the 1870s and how it had been turned into the Renaissance Hotel) … What is it about the corporate mind-set and how its screws up anything of worth? It’s not that they don’t try. Perhaps it has always been this way. But exactly what is it that offends? What is it that one values in a project potentiality and sees compromised? At CSM, SW had shown us the promos, but had given only a partial delivery – frustrated, compromised … Pringle Brandon had exhibited a crass insensitivity; their habits of taste were simply inappropriate … (Ah, I hear you say: the issues of taste, aptness, fit, etc!) And the SW Job Architect was most dignified about it all.
Anyway, before I forget: what a development going on! Kings Cross promises to be a huge improvement on whatever Foster and his team had been scrabbling to achieve all those years ago. I look forward to the construction unfolding and to finding CSM in a new setting … OK, well, I somewhat look forward and somewhat dread what I know will be another familiar exercise of the sacrifice of significant architectural talents to the Gods of project abstraction that are always a means to end that is somehow never achieved …