Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Mike Davies
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?