The Guardian – Ancient University Buildings Under Threat

Our recent preoccupation with our studio move has meant we have not had much time to look around ourselves at the world.  However, while on a flight to London this week we did notice this story from the Guardian which sparked a bit of a debate.  Having visited Universities across the country we understand the power of historic buildings to project a powerful identity for the institutions to which they belong.  It seems as if the sense of history and place attached to these pieces of architecture somehow comes to symbolize the intellectual status of a school and this naturally is an important factor in how students, staff and academics identify themselves with the institution.  Change therefore is often an emotionally charged issue.

We encounter similar problems on many of our projects.  The Fraser Building at Glasgow University, despite being a refurbishment of a more recent building was described as the greatest change to the University in 500 years.  The change in this instance was more concerned with a change to the way in which service was delivered, yet it also involved moving staff out of much loved historic buildings and into open plan modern floor space.  As you would expect staff needed a lot of support through this change and the project required a great deal of sensitivity.  On other projects such as The Design Guide for University of Bristol and The Tate Library at Regents College we have been faced with period interiors who’s atmosphere contribute much to the student experience.  In these cases we have recommended sensitive restoration with only the most minor alterations/additions. These spaces, far from being difficult have forced our team to think creatively about discreet solutions to problems. For example, how do deliver electronic resources to spaces designed before even electricity was widely used.  Our answer in these projects was to design a slim timber ribbon element  that carries power up from the lower level and arches over desks preventing ugly trunking being installed and allowing the original furniture complete with it’s antique graffiti to be retained.

Is change to these buildings necessary?  After a slightly bumpy rain drenched flight and a hearty discussion we reached the conclusion that it is.  Providing that changes are made with the greatest sensitivity and measures such as ‘reversible construction’ are taken these changes can only be a positive move towards greater inclusion.  After all Universities are first and foremost seats of learning and must ensure that they remain the best environments for that activity. While searching for quotes about change this week for a separate project we came across this one from which seemed fitting,  “He who moves not forward, goes backward” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

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