With tuition fees set to triple this autumn, the University of Exeter has stolen a lead on its rivals with a spectacular student-centred focus to its campus, says Ian Latham. Photos: Hufton & Crow.
Rarely can a building have been so eagerly anticipated nor so quickly adopted as the University of Exeter’s pivotal £48m Forum complex. The day after its 2nd May royal opening during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee tour, revision-season students thronged into its every corner, and from then on it was only early arrivals that could bag a prized seat.
Six years ago Exeter anticipated the changing university feescape, in which costs would shift from taxpayers to its consumers, and that student expectations would shift accordingly. At the same time the university projected an increase in student numbers from 11,000 to 16,000 by 2026. For vice chancellor Steve Smith’s team this meant reconfiguring the university to introduce what it had always lacked – ‘a central focus for the campus that was central to the students’. With the Forum’s recent completion in advance of this autumn’s arrival of the first £9k tuition fee cohort, the timing was impeccable, helping the university steal a lead on its rivals among the UK’s top ten. ‘We now have the campus in a market position’, says Smith. ‘The brand is just right’. Attracting the best students to Exeter is paramount to its ambitions and the Forum is the central plank of a capital programme aimed at providing facilities that deliver high levels of student satisfaction.
The university embarked on the Forum project with serious intent, visiting state-of-the-art education facilities around the world, and developing an ambitious and exacting brief. It set high architectural stakes to match. Eventually Wilkinson Eyre prevailed over Foreign Office Architects, having emerged from a shortlist that also included Feilden Clegg Bradley, Woods Bagot and Hopkins. It’s perhaps an indication of the brief’s precision that both final-round proposals were diagrammatically similar, but whereas FOA opted for an orthogonal plan responding to the geometry of the adjacent library and Great Hall, Wilkinson Eyre proposed a free-flowing plan drawn from the landscape and roofed by an all-embracing gridshell. In some respects, the scheme develops the practice’s early investigations into ‘supersheds’, which here in sophisticated guise, gathers together a range of social, learning, reception and service spaces in a loose-fit arrangement.
The Forum has been a project of immense complexity, with countless conflicting functional requirements, a steeply sloping site, unforgiving box buildings for neighbours, a minimal disruption requirement during the four-year construction period, and at the end the unmovable deadline of a royal opening. Wilkinson Eyre has resolved these with apparent ease, reinvigorating a number of outdated campus buildings while adding new future-proof facilities and introducing an identifiable contemporary image. The university regards the Forum as ‘iconic’, and it is certainly designed to impress first-time visitors as much as its regular day- and night-time users, but its undulating roofline, echoing the lie of the land, and its amorphous asymmetrical forms, give it a low-key, informal character far removed from the seductive look-at-me tendency.
Wilkinson Eyre’s definitive strategy – to envisage the project as a landscape solution as much as built form – has paid rich rewards, capitalising on the campus’ greatest asset. The undulating hillside topography alone makes the place special, but its status as a listed landscape with many rare specimens makes it unique, and more than compensates for the stock of solid but largely undistinguished buildings. Flowing contours, reconfigured as ‘ribbons’, trace through the Forum from the imaginative hard landscaped piazzas on both north and south sides, creating informal relationships with the existing buildings and non-hierarchical new spaces that comfortably accommodate the ebb and flow of different uses throughout the day.
The three key components – the new auditorium, the ‘exploration labs’, and the upgraded library (its brick facade removed to open into the Forum) constitute a ‘triangle of adjacencies’ while a student services centre provides front-of-house facilities on two levels. In addition, there is a suite of seminar rooms, which share an internal garden court with the Forum street, a bank, a cafe, a rooftop terrace linked with an existing catering facility and a large campus shop. Here, prominently displayed, are stylish mugs and iPad cases sporting the spidery abstracted gridshell pattern that seems destined to become the new corporate identity. Throughout there are places to sit, to gather and study, all networked and powered, catering both for those students who need the calm of a secluded corner as well as those that thrive on the wired buzz of a Costa cafe. Galleries, bridges, trees, ‘external’ lighting and benches denote the kind of interior/exterior spaces that will chime with a privileged generation familiar with shopping malls and airport terminals, but with the lecture theatre and library as anchor stores the real purpose of the place is implicit.
The early decision to opt for a gridshell roof, a rational solution that had the potential to be elegant and uplifting, was inspired, and it establishes the informal character of the space. Other means of enclosure would have formalised the intervention as a building in its own right and implied regular grids. Studded with ETFE cushions and glazed panels that suffuse the spaces with the changing daylight, the timber structure is the largest of its type in the UK and Buro Happold’s work here should do much to reinvigorate the potential of this efficient form of enclosure. Inside and out, the roof is carefully detailed and crafted, its intriguing geometries perfectly complemented by the billowing shapes of Alex Beleschenko’s artworks on the three main glazed facades.
The completion of the Forum shifts the physical and psycho-geographic centre of gravity of the university, and its magnetic effect will test the robustness of facilities elsewhere on the campus. Happily a sympathetic new masterplan, by LDN Design, is now in place to structure future interventions. The Forum itself will require careful handling too, to help avoid the fate that has beset, for instance, the grand spaces of Foster’s Stansted Airport terminal.
If the success of buildings was measured by cost effectiveness alone, the Forum would rank very highly. However its potential to transform not only individual day-to-day experiences but also the prospects of the university as a whole places it in a different league. The Forum seems to be exactly the building that Exeter was missing and other UK universities constrained by their tired mid-twentieth century campuses will be watching with interest and not a little jealousy.
Wilkinson Eyre Architects
Founded by Chris Wilkinson in 1983, joined by Jim Eyre in 1987, and now with eight directors, the practice has projects in many sectors and locations around the world. Its numerous awards include the Stirling Prize in two successive years. Other recent higher education projects include Earth Sciences at Oxford University and the Arts Two Building at Queen Mary University of London.
Architect: Wilkinson Eyre Architects; design team: Kevin Bai, Florian Ballan, Stafford Critchlow (director, left), Chris Davies, Ben Dawson, Chris Donoghue, Jim Eyre, Paula Friar, Christian Froggatt, Nat Keast, Harsh Lad, Felix Lewis, Leszek Marszalek, Stephen Perrin, Tom Smith, Ivan Subanovic, Simon Vickers, Jan Vogel, Nadine Wagner, Chris Wilkinson, Soo Yau; structural, civil, m&e, fire, acoustic, AV/IT, transport, access, Breeam, environmental engineer: Buro Happold (Mike Entwisle, Jonathon Roynon, Andrew Cromarty, Richard Budd, Phil Lines, John Standivan, Mark Dollimore, Andy Passingham, Alistair Meachin, Ben Smallwood, Simon Wright, Anthony Davies); landscape architect: Hargreaves Assocs; project manager, qs, CDMC: Davis Langdon; planning consultant: Turley Assocs; signage, branding: Thomas Matthews; arboriculture: JP Associates; art consultant: Modus Operandi; glass artist: Alexander Beleschenko; contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Timber gridshell: SH Structures; timber supply: Constructional Timber; primary steelwork: Rowecord Engineering; copper/aluminium roof: Varla UK; copper supply: KME; glazing, curtain walling: Astec Projects; brickwork: Irvine Whitlock; pc concrete cladding: Techrete; glass rooflights: Novum; ETFE rooflights: Vector Foiltec; joinery: Hazelwoods Carpentry; architectural metalwork: Taunton Fabrications; partitions, ceilings: Interior Concepts; m&e: MJN Colston; bespoke furniture: Abrahams & Carlisle; flat roof: Rock International; in-situ concrete: John Cooper Construction; pc stairs: Ladds Concrete; AV: GV Multi-Media; flooring: DMC Contracts; external works: Dancourt; kitchen: Hallmark; lifts: Kone; cast stone wall panel: Gillespie; metal doors, roller shutters: Harlech Industrial Doors; rooftop louvre cowls: Price TWA; bricks: Ibstock (Chailey); aluminium curtain wall, framed windows: Schueco; external glazing: Carey Glass; glazed doors: Geze; louvres: Colt (glass), Renson (aluminium); paving: Charcon; drainage channels: Aco; insulation: Kingspan; auditorium seating: Ferco; terrazzo tiles: Quiligotti; carpet (auditorium, exploration labs, student services and seminar areas): Interface; ceramic tiles to wcs: Johnson; metal ceilings (refurbished library, seminar areas, student services area): SAS International; perforated plasterboard (auditorium, exploration labs, students services centre, seminar areas): British Gypsum; lighting: Zumtobel (library, auditorium, seminar block, student services centre), Click, Fagerhult, Design Plan, Emergilite, Holophane, BEGA (external, ‘street’); internal timber doors: Haslin; access floors: Kingspan; library shelving: Quibiqa; blinds: Kensington; wc cubicles: Amwell; acoustic fabric: Fabri-trak; movable partitions: Movawall Systems; lockers: Garran Lockers; loose furniture: Broadstock.
First published in AT229, June 2012