Tim Ronalds Architects’ music venue at the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus
‘Aesthetically the campus has failed to achieve distinction in spite of some good buildings… it has not yet produced a coherent total environment, for it has no heart.’ Tony Birks’ indictment of the University of Kent, written just seven years after its opening in Building the New Universities (1972), now seems premature, particularly given students’ evident fondness for the campus over the subsequent four decades. But from the outset the campus, overlooking the historic centre of Canterbury, has lacked a consistent masterplan. Instead, an ideology of realism amidst austerity was adopted by the first vice-chancellor, Geoffrey Templeman, and made manifest by William Holford’s initial series of self-contained collegiate buildings. While this approach certainly led to a lack of overall cohesion, an intriguing outcome is that it allowed a slow and pragmatic evolution, with individual buildings incrementally shifting and adjusting the character of the campus. The newest addition – the Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall – extends this tendency, cleverly exploiting the potential of its location on the north side of the campus to lock into the complex fabric of buildings and matrix of routes. At the same time the building’s quiet yet assured presence consolidates a sense of place, expanding the role of the adjacent Gulbenkian arts centre as a key social focus.
Given the absence of an academic music course, the arrival of a first-rate concert hall on the Canterbury campus may seem surprising. Music nonetheless plays an important part of the university’s cultural and corporate identity, and music scholarships are available to those on any degree course. Many students and staff participate in extramural musical activities, and with the lack of a comparable venue in the city, there is a significant potential catchment beyond academic confines.
A glance at the shortlisted architects’ proposals shows most opting to detach the concert hall from the neighbouring buildings both in plan arrangement and external form, an approach that would have done little for the coherence of the campus. Significantly, Tim Ronalds Architects’ concept comes across as more modest, flexible and eminently realisable. The calm, considered response clearly appealed to the selection panel, which visited not only the architects’ offices, but also a building by each of them.
The rectangular site is bordered by parking to the west, the primary campus through-road of Giles Lane on the north, a busy pedestrian route to the east, and the blind flank of a cinema/lecture hall, which shares its foyer with the adjacent Gulbenkian Theatre, on the south side. There’s an elegant logic to Ronalds’ scheme, placing the foyer on the east side to form a linear arrangement with the existing arts foyer and sharing its facilities. The get-in is from the car park to the west, and the various practice and teaching rooms are arranged on two levels facing north, helping to animate the street elevation. Given the site constraints, such a configuration then implies a north-south orientation for the favoured shoebox auditorium.
Ground and first floor plans
The main entrance, signalled by a cantilevered canopy, is placed on the east pedestrian route but apparent from the road. On entering, the two-level timber-lined foyer feels more generous than its dimensions suggest, with long vistas, a cut-out to accommodate a wide staircase and toplighting from linear roof glazing. The subtle arrangement of movement patterns, with principal routes running north-south and transitional routes and thresholds running east-west, subliminally eases occupation and use of the space, an aspect often neglected in the fluctuating ebb and flow of foyers. Here too are places for impromptu performance and serendipitous meeting. Paired double doors open into the centre of the concert hall, which is configured for optimum flexibility with two banks of retractable seating – audience on the left and benches for choir, orchestra or more audience on the right. The seats can also be reached from the upper level of the foyer, which connects with a seating gallery that runs around the perimeter of the hall.
The character of the auditorium is established by a series of linings made from Douglas-fir: an outer layer defines the overall box, while an inner layer, set by the datum of the perimeter handrail, contains the performers and audience. The solution derives in part from the decision, driven by a desire to achieve a watertight envelope early in the contract, to employ a steel frame. The inclusion within the main structural steelwork package of the inner steel frame, which supports the auditorium linings, also brought significant overall savings. Particularly neat use is made of the interstitial space between the timber lining and outer wall to stow the wrap-around acoustic curtains when they are not required.
The architect’s original intention to enclose the concert hall in brick was thwarted by the planning authority’s unusual preference for concrete block, overtly to correspond with the vernacular in this part of the campus. However Ronalds’ block is not proprietary but a purpose-made flint-faced block with a ground of black granite chippings, developed with North-West Precast. Matching precast elements frame the windows while the lighter, recessed mortar allows the brickwork bond to read clearly.
The elegant resolution of the junctions between between the walls and windows are indicative of the impressive level of care the architect has brought to this building, which refines themes introduced in earlier music projects at Watford and Sevenoaks. The budget for Kent, however, was two-thirds that of the Sevenoaks building. There a tectonic relationship of structure and fabric was exposed throughout, whereas here the underlying steel frame structure is concealed. There is a satisfying tactile enjoyment, nonetheless, in the way materials such as the flint-faced blocks and timber panelling affect the character of spaces. Throughout, details are resolved with elegance and without fuss, serving to remind that the hall interior is the building’s raison d’être. Here, perhaps, Ronalds comes close to what Herman Hertzberger describes as ‘rye bread architecture’ in which ‘the real skill lies in constructing a frame that you can put the life of the building inside’.
To deliver such an impressive, highly flexible concert hall that promises impeccable acoustics for just over £2000 per square metre is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to client, architect, consultants and contractors alike. There is potential, in the University of Kent’s notable new facility, for the quality of experience among both musicians and audience to be of the highest order. Time will tell if this can be fulfilled, but initial reactions have been very positive. After performing at the the Colyer-Fergusson’s inaugural concert, Daniel Rowland of the Brodsky Quartet described it as a ‘stunning, world-class hall… the feeling on stage is close to perfect. The dimensions are just right, spacious but still intimate. The acoustics are just fantastic… I can’t wait to be back’.
Tim Ronalds Architects
Price & Myers
Carr & Angier
The University of Kent.