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With elegance and economy, a university campus in a previously neglected area of east London offers a new view of academe, and a possible focus for the local community.

The University of East London (UEL) is one of those which emerged in the '90s, when British polytechnics were made into universities. Much criticism has been made of the results, some justified, but a lot from snobbery. Yet one thing is clear: the change in status gave the new organizations control over their own finances, which previously had been run by local authorities. So they became able to work out their own accommodation policies, and the more creative ones decided to sell off the outlying parts of their often very scattered estates, and consolidated their properties on fewer concentrated centres giving, often for the first time, a sense of academic and social cohesion. The latest in a series is UEL's Docklands campus, on the north bank of the Royal Albert Dock, miles to the east of the capital's second financial centre in the Isle of Dogs. The Royal Albert Dock is a vast rectangular expanse of water originally lined with warehouses and full of the trade of the last years of Empire. Now the ships have long gone, the warehouses after them. Water fowl and rowing fours cause the only ripples in the calm water. The site is fundamentally a long thin strip between the water and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). North of the rail tracks is a pleasant low-density '30s suburb, presumably built for people that worked in the docks, who clearly lived in a great deal more comfort than their grandfathers that laboured in the Victorian docks further up river towards the pool of London. To the east are wastes still largely untouched by millennial prosperity. To the west are some grim behemoths, large object buildings spewed out by the late '90s boom; forming the horizon behind them are the towers of Canary Wharf dominated by Cesar Pelli's skyscraper.

DLR's Cyprus station determined the focus of the new campus. You get off the train and walk south, drawn irresistibly towards the mighty red portico carved out of the building itself. An elliptical forecourt, lined to left and right with gabions, is scarcely preparation for what happens at the top of the generous ramp which leads up through the portico. I was there on a beautiful sunny day, and emerged into what appeared to be a different world: white and urbane, airy and clean looking over the vast lake of the old dock, then over the runway of City Airport to the Thames, then further to the south bank of the river which forms the horizon. I was in the arcaded University Square, busy with students strolling about, chattering or lazing in the sunshine. Clearly the archetypal quad which descends to us from medieval monasteries still works socially, no matter how it is made.

In execution, the UEL piazza is very different from its revered predecessors. It is essentially Modern, in an almost old-fashioned sense, with long window strips alternating with white opaque strips of rendered insulation. Columns of the arcade are simply the rolled steel members of the frame, exposed and made silver with intumescent paint. (As Robert Maxwell has pointed out, this substance has allowed the slenderness and elegance of the whole steel order which, before the change of regulations, would have had to be covered up in extremely cludgy fireproofing material.) At the southern corners of the square, the Modernist steel order achieves heraldic drama. On each side, a silver column almost detached from the main bulk of the building rises four and a half storeys from ground to roof (which tilts up, emphasizing the effect) to form the flank of an implied proscenium, framing the view south over the water.

At ground level, the square has the usual basic functions of a modern college: lecture theatre, bar, bookshop, cafe, media centre and so on. Within the calm and inexpressive facades above are the teaching areas in which spaces are divided according to needs of individual departments that will doubtless change over time. On top are studio spaces, large volumes with shaded clerestoreys adding to light from the windows.

On the east side of the square, the biggest internal space of the whole complex, a long toplit street, is heralded by a portico in a glass wall, which allows you to look down along the whole volume. The section is excellent, with carefully modulated cool north light making the whole place luminous. Possibly because the campus is new, or maybe because I was not there at the right time of day, the internal street seemed more utilitarian and lifeless than its equivalents in Scandinavia or Germany. I assume that the rather austere atmosphere will gradually change under the attentions of generations of students; the bridges will become places for casual chats, and the long street will become a real social space (the sun cannot shine all the time in the square). Already the little cafe at the east end is humanizing the place.

Looking at this east wing from the waterside, the square's calm anonymous strips of glass with their white spandrels continue, but what could have become banal and overpowerful is modulated by three vertical stair towers, which give counterpoint to the powerful horizontal thrust of the main treatment. On this side, the greatest contrast is with the residential blocks which dominate the water's edge. These are made as pairs of drums, linked by small common circulation areas. I must admit to not liking circular buildings in general: they are hard to fit into the city, difficult to make work internally and tend to become monumental, even when they have no right to be. Of course, there are famous exceptions to their neighbourliness problem: the Pantheon has its huge portico to bring it into conversation with the city, and Bramante's Tempietto is gently corralled in its cloister. Variants of both devices have been used endlessly ever since.

But at UEL, the coupled drums come down to earth slap-bang. Yet I have come to respect them. The circular form is a remarkably ingenious response to the very straitened resources of the university, which was anxious to accommodate as many students as possible (at the moment there are nearly 400 living on the site). In each drum, the circular plans minimize circulation to a small hall in the middle, from where individual student rooms radiate as wedges. Each wedge has its own square window over a desk, and a radial service and storage wall which includes a microscopic prefabricated lavatory and shower unit, the bed with bookshelves over it and a wardrobe. Here is Existenz Minimum honed to the millimetre, but lively colour schemes and thoughtful location of all elements make the little student rooms far more cheerful and usable than many larger but more conventionally planned ones. Socially, each floor is divided into two flats for between three and five people; each of these has a shared kitchen and dining spa ce. Externally, the cylinders are of course patterned by the regular rhythm of the students' windows. Ropfs, which pitch up from a central gutter, have slightly overhanging dark eaves, under which there is a red stripe, reminding irresistibly of the jaunty caps of senior NCOs in the British army. I'm sure the reference is unintended. But others may not be so: there is a long history of round nautical buildings from lighthouses to the Martello towers built to fend off Napoleon's fleets. Standing on the water's edge, these structures are well-loved points of reference round the coast. At UEL, the stubby round towers have the same picturesque function on the long, long shore of the Royal Albert. They become sturdy landmarks, setting up visual discipline different from that of the teaching and social buildings behind. Picturesque effects are enhanced by making the drum of each pair nearest the water white, and its twin sky-blue, light yellow, or a rather sombre green.

All buildings in the complex are sealed most of the time. This is a result of planning permission, which was granted on the basis that spaces should be usable with all windows shut because of the proximity of the City Airport. (When I was there, the place did not seem to be making much racket, but perhaps the noise gets worse at particular times of the day and year.) Natural ventilation being unavailable, the architects and environmental engineers developed an integrated energy storage system by which hollow precast concrete planks distribute air and also use their mass to store heat. Highly insulated walls, low-e glass and very tight windows combine with shading against solar gain (and an efficient heat recovery system), to achieve carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption half as great as are normally expected for good buildings for higher education in the UK.

Both construction and running costs of the UEL are almost ludicrously much less than what would be expected in an Oxford or Cambridge college. But architects and engineers have combined to show how working on a very tight budget need not lead to mean, dull or shoddy places. On the contrary, they have created a campus which is lively, generous and often cheering. Time will tell if the detailing and materials will stand up to constant rough usage and the weather of the estuary, but at the moment, this first stage of what is hoped to be a bigger complex (and a centre for the whole area) bodes extremely well for the future.


Edward Cullinan Architects, London

Project team

Megha Chand, Carol Costello, Ted Cullinan, Alison Farwell, Michelle Hart, Claire Herniman, Karen Hughes, Steve Johnson, Michael McGrath, Robin Nicholson, Colin Rice, Annalie Riches, James Roach, John Romer, Steve western

Structural/services engineers

Whitby Bird

Landscape architects

Livingston Eyre Associates


Benedict Luxmoore, 1,2,4,8,9,10

Peter Darant/arcblue. 3,5,6,7,11,12,13,14,15,16

1. Residence drums are nautical landmarks on long shore of Royal Albert.

2. Great red portico welcomes visitors from station, and provides ...

3. ramp up to University Square, beyond which...

4. are residential drums at waterside.

5. University Square with glazed entrance to internal street in east wing centre.

6. Flying structures on each side of University Square form a virtual proscenium, framing views.

7. Halls of residence are amazingly compressed in plan, with minimal circulation areas. So they do fit in a sense into nautical tradition of straightforward functional buildings like lighthouses.

8. Drum nearest water in each pair is white. (Small building in foreground is service store.)

9. Landside drums are all coloured.

10. The two geometries contrasted. Vertical circulation towers break down what could have been relentless horizontality of teaching accommodation.

11. Internal street (rather utilitarian at moment) Is main internal space. Presumably, it will be made more lively by use and habit, and ...

12. ... bridges across It will become places for dawdling and casual meetings.

13. Lecture theatre.

14. Light and airy studios are some of best spaces in complex.

15, 16. Cabin-like bed-sitting rooms are very finely honed in tradition of Existenz Minimum.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:University of East London architectural reconstruction
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:ROUGH DIAMOND.

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