Architecture: Hallmarks of quality on the campus: By giving the traditional terraced house a modern twist, Rick Mather has produced civilised homes for students, says Peter Dormer

Click to follow
As a student I lived in digs; as a participant in conferences at university campuses I stay in student accommodation. Both offer basic bed and board. But the words hall of residence evoke living on a grand scale. Sadly, the dream is nearly always dashed by mean spaces and poor detailing. However Rick Mather, in his newly-completed commission for student accommodation at the University of East Anglia, has provided a model for public as well as university housing. He has built that rare thing: practical modern housing that is beautiful.

Mather is an elegant designer who can make a simple building shine. It is a rare talent, and one that he has perfected with, first, his well known interiors for the 'Zen' Chinese restaurant chain and then through one of the only truly elegant speculative office blocks in London's Docklands. A few years ago he was appointed consultant architect to the university, just outside Norwich, and produced a handsome new science wing.

He follows in the footsteps of three celebrated architects who, for better or worse, have given the university its distinctive lakeside campus: Sir Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre, who built halls of residence here in the guise of concrete Inca pyramids (1962-68), Sir Bernard Feilden, the veteran conservationist who added buildings between 1969 and 1977, and Sir Norman Foster. Foster designed East Anglia's famous Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, an art gallery and teaching wing, in a hi-tech interpretation of an aircraft hangar. Mather's student residences are intended to complement it.

Like most universities, East Anglia makes money from conferences in the vacations, subsidising the rents charged to students. The real money comes from attracting an upmarket clientele. What attracts the top people is the right balance between culture and decent overnight accommodation. Norwich already provides a one-stop-shopping experience of culture at the Sainsbury Centre, which offers a blend of secular religiosity and high modern art unique in England and Wales. The new accommodation had to complement Foster's big shed and it had to be cheap enough for students to rent in term time while sufficiently smart to let out during the conference season.

Since the Sixties the university has housed students in H-block barracks rented from the RAF - a first years' ghetto, said to be haunted by the ghost of a headless airman. More recent accommodation includes a series of coventional terraced houses built in 1979, whose popularity led the university to conclude that such houses, each accommodating 10 students, provide the right social balance. This, with the demand for extreme energy efficiency - economical for students - became the core of Mather's brief. He retained the basic concept, but has given his terraces a uniform, modernist appearance. The result is quite unlike a traditional Victorian or Edwardian terrace.

Included in the commission was the requirement for every study- bedroom to have its own bathroom: no more trailing down corridors to use 'common facilities'. And each terrace was to have its own common room where students from each of the houses can meet, hold parties, compare trust funds or plot the overthrow of the state. Within each house, the communal areas centre on a well equipped kitchen opening on to a carpeted, comfortably furnished dining area.

Mather's gently curved terraces give an outward appearance of homogeneity; he has not created little individualistic boxes. The flavour is Scandinavian, and at night ribbons of light appear beneath the roof lines - illuminating the frontages and turning the buildings into elegant beacons to welcome their tenants home.

The results could have been worthily bland, but Mather has given a strong sculptural interest to the buildings by penetrating the main block that faces the Sainsbury Centre with a broad, high arch and a wonderful external concrete spiral staircase, the core of which is covered in a sea-green mosaic and with railings which are striations of black steel rod. It adds grit to the architectural good manners and discretion.

Much use is made inside the buildings of recessed and diffused light, giving an atmosphere of security and gentleness without the cloying cosiness most students associate with home and which most seek to escape. The woodwork is ash veneer and most of the walls are plastered and painted white; the majority of floors are carpeted. An unusual but exemplary feature of the design is that these buildings are the most airtight of their size ever built in this country, a necessity born of the fact that the buildings recycle their own waste heat.

The most engaging and dramatic internal spaces are the large common rooms, where Mather has introduced bold elements such as a 30ft wall of cadmium. In the common rooms, as with the corridors, he uses the gentle rhythm of walls curved in S-shapes to soften the focus of the interior and get away from the institutional box.

The only worry I have is a feeling that the buildings could have benefitted from a further 10 or 15 per cent spent on materials, construction and workmanship. Having just returned from Canada, where I sampled less gracious yet more robust 'student accommodation', I wondered about the vulnerability of the interiors and fittings to damage. Mather's English- rose beauty may not easily survive the rough paws and boots of students. Indeed, it already appears to have been blighted in some places by the carelessness of the very people who built and painted it. These are, however, deeply civilised buildings, redeeming the disappointment one usually feels when faced with a 'hall of residence'.

(Photographs omitted)