The wow factor on campus

Universities are learning that impressive architecture can woo students and give a new identity. Elaine Knutt reports
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The Independent Online

When Queen Mary University of London was planning its new £44m medical school, the project steering committee wanted a building distinctive enough to compete with Imperial College and its elegant South Kensington setting, and draw staff and students to less elegant Whitechapel. In other words, it had to pass the taxi-driver test. "The idea was that you'd get in a cab, say 'Take me to the Queen Mary medical school,' and he'd say 'Oh yes, that's the so-and-so building," says the project director, Julian Robinson.

When Queen Mary University of London was planning its new £44m medical school, the project steering committee wanted a building distinctive enough to compete with Imperial College and its elegant South Kensington setting, and draw staff and students to less elegant Whitechapel. In other words, it had to pass the taxi-driver test. "The idea was that you'd get in a cab, say 'Take me to the Queen Mary medical school,' and he'd say 'Oh yes, that's the so-and-so building," says the project director, Julian Robinson.

Once the hoardings come down, the new building will be on every London cabbies' mental map. The design is by Will Alsop, the architect who put Peckham Library on stilts and won the prestigious Stirling prize for it. Inside the glass-walled structure, science and art come together in Alsop's striking orange frogspawn "pods". "Next year it'll be part of Open House Day, and they'll be queuing round the block for it," predicts Robinson.

It will be Open House Day in 2008 before anyone gets to look round the new base of Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, but dedicated architecture fans will be marking the day in their diaries. Foreign Office Architects, the rising architectural star responsible for the London 2012 Olympic Stadium proposal, is designing a £50m "iconic" building next door to Richard Rogers' Millennium Dome on the Greenwich Peninsula. "FOA made a very imaginative presentation. We felt they would produce a building of significance on that site," says Robin Baker, Ravensbourne's director.

These two schemes are part of a wave of capital projects under way in the higher education sector. Institutions are straining to beautify their campuses to entice students to pay top-up fees, and commissioning new buildings to give themselves more room after the expansion of the Nineties. Increasingly, they are following the example of Queen Mary's and Ravensbourne - and emulating Oxford and Cambridge - by hiring architects who will make a splash for them in the minds of prospective students and the wider public.

London Metropolitan University branded itself sharp and edgy when it commissioned a geometrically adventurous graduate centre from Daniel Libeskind on north London's Holloway Road. In Edinburgh, Napier University has unveiled a bulging egg-shaped lecture hall by Building Design Partnership as the show-stopping centrepiece of its business school. Students are responding to its gravitational pull by keeping the building busy at all times, and Napier hopes that prospective students and visiting sixth-formers will also fall under its influence. "There's definitely a 'wow' factor," says the project director Tom Gorman.

This is architecture as a marketing tool. As architect Rick Mather points out, "a defined architectural identity goes with a defined academic identity". Mather, who has worked on new master plans at the universities of East Anglia, Lincoln and Southampton, believes the campuses with the most architectural character and coherence from the building boom of the 1960s are the most memorable. The UEA's uncompromising ziggurats rising from the flat Norfolk plains say something about its pioneering status. More people have an image of Sussex's landscaped contours and warm, listed, brick buildings than, say, Lancaster or Essex.

That message seems to be filtering through - to university publicity departments at least. An online tour reveals "landmark" buildings cropping up on campuses all over the country. Surrey's new health and medical sciences building; Plymouth's medical school, Sheffield's chemistry department and Newcastle's Devonshire Building all aspire to be more than big boxes containing smaller boxes of lecture halls and labs. "On the whole, I think academic buildings in the sector are of a pretty high quality, and are cared about," says Paul Finch, acting chairman of the government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

But that doesn't mean the architectural profession itself thinks much of the buildings being produced. In December, a listing of the Top 50 clients of the Year compiled by the RIBA Journal included just four universities: Queen Mary University of London, The University of the Arts, Cambridge and Southampton. "If we'd had the Top 50 Clients of 1854, I think at least 20 of them would have been universities," says Marco Goldschmied, a member of the judging panel and a former president of the RIBA. "Some universities are punching well below their weight."

Goldschmied, who points out that the last time a higher education building was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize was 1997, believes that universities should have the same leadership function in architecture as they do in the rest of society. "There's an art to being an inspired and attentive client, and who better to re-establish that role than the universities? They have relatively more freedom than other clients, and they have a long-term vision. Setting a standard that others can aspire to is one of the roles of universities."

He is also concerned that universities are commissioning tried and trusted names, rather than trawling for younger talent. "They should have the courage to move away from the traditional, established, old-school architects. The average age of the university population is far lower than the national population, so demographically their architects ought to be youthful and vibrant. One of the great hallmarks of an inspired client is the ability to spot and nurture young talent."

But no one says it's easy. Many of the clients on the RIBA Journal's list are property developers who commission several buildings a year and employ teams of professionals; university estates departments rely on a handful.

"It's extremely challenging. There's only a few of us, and we're trying to direct several capital projects. We're lucky that several of our committee of governors have experience in property and design," says Sheelagh Douglas, pro-rector for corporate resources at the University of the Arts. The former London Institute is consolidating onto five London campuses, a project that illustrates challenges that never troubled Goldschmied's Victorians, or architects of the 1960s. To start with, institutions are being urged to put on a public face and bring people into closer contact with higher education. In two projects by the architects Allies and Morrison, the conversion of the former Army Medical College at Millbank for Chelsea College of Art and Design incorporates exhibition and event space open to the public, and the ground floor of the renovated London College of Communications building at Elephant and Castle is partly a community facility.

Also, with nine-to-five timetables being broken down by new teaching technologies and students' hectic work-life balance, today's campuses perform a different function. "University buildings used to be built to tell the world what it was about from the outside. Once you were in, the building closed in around you. That's a model you can't sustain nowadays. Now, it's more like a modestly priced hotel - you no longer contain people, but facilitate their flow through it," says Professor Roger Wilson, the head of Chelsea College.

Another issue identified by Douglas is that higher education has fared badly compared with schools in terms of research on future learning environments. Earlier this year, the Department for Education and Skills funded 11 architects to come up with "exemplar" classrooms of the future, but there is no equivalent in the higher education sector. "The way subjects are delivered has changed less rapidly than in schools, but it is still an enormous issue," says Douglas. "More work has been done on this in the States, which we've tried to pick up on."

For many institutions, the buck they pass on architecture is stamped with the word "cost". It's true that practices likely to win design awards will have higher fee expectations than architectural safe players. And compared to the plain, vanilla solutions of some architects, designs produced by the most talented firms will be pricier. On the other hand, the actual out-turn costs may prove similar. "The initial premium isn't necessarily reflected in the final cost. Good architects find good cost-cutting solutions; bad architects just find bad solutions to everything," says Professor Roger Wilson.

Choosing between safe architecture and braver, brand-building design often comes down to the design awareness of the decision makers. One project director stresses a positive relationship with his academic colleagues, but acknowledges: "Some of them hadn't thought about these issues before, their aspirations were very low." He describes how an architect once wrote a report which referred to the work of artist Mark Rothko. "Afterwards, one member of the panel described it as 'a very good report - apart from all the silly design nonsense'."

Goldschmied would like to see more institutions commissioning the Stirling Prize winning buildings of the future. "If every university in the country commissioned a really good building every 30 years, we'd have three or four outstanding buildings a year."

There are corners of the sector where that message has still to get through, but in an increasing number of cases he's preaching to the converted. "We don't see buildings just as buildings, but as part of our culture - they help students to understand what our values are," says Sheelagh Douglas at the University of the Arts.

"We want to educate our students to develop their talents and produce new, innovative and exciting work, and how can we do that if we're not producing innovative and exciting architecture?"