Architecture: University challenge

Can Edward Cullinan's bold and stylish new campus lift the fortunes of East London University?
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IN THE slipstream of aircraft landing at London City Airport, an intriguing new skyline mushrooms. Yellow and blue and white stubby cylinders, ducted with big silver grilles, cluster on the Docklands waterfront. "It's the new leisure centre for East London," the minicab driver assures me.

How wrong he is. It may look playful, but the University of East London is no playschool. It is fighting to stay alive and improve its league position as the university with the worst drop-out rate in Britain. For years it has been scattered all over London in desultory halls, and has now put a lot of hope into its new campus, designed by Edward Cullinan architects, which opened in September.

The brief of Cullinan and his partner Robin Nicholson was to provide a campus for 2,700 undergraduates, 98 per cent of whom come from comprehensive schools and 60 per cent of whom are from the bottom socio-economic groups. "Cut the detail and keep things large", was the axiom that drove their decision to make buildings on the 26-acre site as big as the budget would allow. One factor in East London's favour is that construction costs for academic halls work out at pounds 1,045 per square metre here, as opposed to pounds 2,000 elsewhere.

The site avoids what Robin Nicholson calls "the conventional wisdom of three-storeyed business parks" that has cemented over so many out-of-town sites. Giddy roof lines and cliff-face elevations make the main building, with its studios, offices, workshops and lecture rooms, masquerade as a five-storeyed building, although it in fact has only four floors.

"We did what the ancient Greeks did - painted red the underside of the overhangs, to emphasise that line," Nicholson says. A 95-metre-long "street" runs the length of the main building under cover of an atrium, serving as the campus's thoroughfare, with lecture halls on the river-front side and laboratories and workshops on the other.

Strategic planning can turn daunting site problems into advantages. A public right of way runs to the river from Cyprus station on the Docklands Light Railway, slap bang through the centre of the campus. So rather than provide a narrow, dimly lit alley between blocks, the architects distanced the main block from the lecture theatres, thereby creating a square. Paved and planted with trees, this piazza is more Milanese than any other square in London. It also cuts the wind factor.

"The main drift was to keep it a convivial place," explains Nicholson, omitting to say that he lost a fight to choose street furniture and control the paving. He battled in vain with LDDC over lighting the river-front, and now sternly averts his gaze from the innocuous white glass baubles along the Thames.

For 30 years Edward Cullinan has advanced his ideas on energy-saving. Ventilation and air-conditioning a building sealed all along its south side - a planning stipulation because of aircraft noise - encouraged them to use the Swedish Thermodeck heating and cooling system, which pushes air through standard precast concrete planks for 40 per cent of the cost of conventional air-conditioning. Rather than dump 20,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil in Bedfordshire, they mixed it with lime and cement and used it to fill the car park.

Viz magazine's character Student Grant may still be suffering cutbacks and refusing to grow up, but the joined-up thinking on energy-saving and urban regeneration displayed by frugal universities such as East London may yet get into the league tables.