An architecture of response

An architecture of response

World Architecture Festival

A major new building for University College London will help understanding of how people interact with the built environment, writes Jeremy Melvin.‘

A building to house the world’ was the challenge Professor Nick Tyler, director of the UCL Centre for Transport Studies, threw out to competitors for the design of the centre’s new Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory (PEARL). Eventually won by the Penoyre & Prasad Studio of Perkins + Will, they designed the 100m by 40m building in a year and completed its construction about 18 months after that. It is the centrepiece of the college’s large development on the former Baker & May pharmaceutical site in Dagenham, east London.

Early concept sketch

Tyler’s comment may sound like Renaissance-papal hubris, but as anyone who saw him speak at WAF will know, he is a genuine uomo universale. He may now earn his daily crust as a transport engineer, but began his career as a classical musician and is above all an acute analyst of urban sociology.

The title of his new centre sums up the thrust of his research: to understand better how people interact with their environment. This, he believes, is as much as anything through intuitive responses provoked by sensory perception, especially sight, smell and sound. More prosaically, the purpose of the centre is to create full-size transport and infrastructure installations in and around which people’s behaviour can be studied, under varied environmental conditions.

Cross section looking west, showing the essentially simple layout of a large volume. A jumbo jet awaits outside

Understanding what people make of such installations, with a view to improving their use and future design, is the intended outcome. But PEARL is far more than a research laboratory, however significant the research it hosts. Helped by an array of solar panels on its vast roof, it is UCL’s first carbon neutral building – and may even by carbon positive. But the key here is people – ordinary members of the public. Many research scientists consider people as instruments, only saved from inertia by their biological as opposed to emotional functions, into which certain types of matter can be injected or introduced. It was this, thinks P&P director Ian Goodfellow, that forged a bond between designer and client – he characterises the firm’s design approach as being centred around people.

Long section: the 100m long building can be broken down into zones for different experiment

For Tyler, biology may play a part in research, but the real issue is the emotional response of individuals and how the sum total of that may amount to a collective culture. To this end, the centre subtly proposes a new relationship between the public and science. Not only are people active participants in the research, but the whole centre is part of an outreach strategy on the part of UCL, where local schoolchildren are invited to see how the centre works, in some instances being introduced to skills that could set off their careers. Much of this comes from Tyler’s conception of the centre and how P&P developed it into an architectural entity.

The west façade, showing the supergraphic to the right and varied treatment of the cor ten cladding to mark the entrance on the left.

Photo: James Tye

To understand why that is the case, we need to look slightly deeper into the brief. As Goodfellow recalls, Tyler had already gone through multiple iterations of the brief when P&P were appointed. For some years he had run a smaller laboratory with a similar agenda, called PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory) in Kentish Town. That helped him and his colleagues to understand what a building needed to do in order to develop their research to the highest level. What they wanted, they realised, was an enormous, flexible space which could be programmed with light, sound and scent as well as objects to simulate the full panoply of conditions found in the public realm and infrastructure. Being able to accommodate real rail carriages and potentially fuselages of jumbo jets, possibly with several simultaneous experiments, meant a very large volume.

Tyler’s successful group research record persuaded UCL to support his aspirations, which meant taking on a site of the scale of the former Baker & May works, more or less simultaneously with the creation of a new east London presence at Here East and the Queen Elizabeth Park, the site of the 2012 Olympic games. This signalled an important change in UCL’s strategic locational thinking by moving beyond its Bloomsbury heartland – over much of which it has already spread over the last 30 years from the William Wilkins-designed quadrangle on Gower Street with its iconic dome and portico. The intention is that UCL embed itself within London’s living and changing social and urban fabric. That brought to life the idea of an elite academic institution developing relationships with its city communities with which it had not, historically, engaged. The nature of Tyler’s research to improve the urban environment, and its methods, made this an ideal location.

The cor ten cladding which almost resembles masonry from a distance, lent itself to visual expression, in its scalloped form and perforations.

Photo: James Tye

It also fitted with the site. Baker & May, eventually absorbed into the big pharma giant Novartis, used the site for production of successful drugs, from pre-penicillin anti-bacterial sulphides in the 1930s to advanced cancer drugs before it closed a decade or so ago. It was a large local employer and, like many paternalistic corporations of the time, took staff welfare seriously. When this site, and the nearby Ford car engine plant shut, within a short space of time, what had been a prosperous area fell on hard times. While UCL will never employ anything like the 4,000 people who worked here for Baker & May, it is expanding, and also seeding other businesses, including what promises to be Europe’s largest film production studio, more or less adjacent to PEARL..

‘The central man in all the world’. Ruskin’s description of Dante is appropriate for Professor Nick Tyler, who conceived a building to house the world.

Photo: James Tye

This relationship squares another circle. As indicated above, much of PEARL’s specification is closely related to the sort of arts centre that originated with Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (itself conceived for a site not too far away), via the Pompidou Centre to OMA’s Factory arts building in Manchester. These relate to the idea that contemporary art tends more and more to the performative, whether it is a performance medium like music, dance and drama, or in the way visual arts are presented. Tyler clearly enjoys the affinities between his research and performance, and revels in the building’s potential use by the London Jazz Festival and other cultural organisations. The sound systems, devised largely by a French physicist who cut his teeth on that country’s domestic nuclear power programme, are such that up to three performances can take place simultaneously, with no obvious physical barriers and without interfering with each other.

Very different atmospheres can be created by light, sound and smell: 18 – Rhapsody in Blue (looking north across the space)

Photo: Tim Soar 81 – Symphony in Red (looking west along the space) Photo: James Tye

Goodfellow remembers Tyler describing the difference between what he orchestrates and conventional performance as being where the boundary lies between reality and imagination. Generally this is somewhere between audience and performers – however much avant garde directors may wish to mix it it – while at PEARL the stage is both real and a stimulant to imagination. It is here that the circle is squared, since sophisticated systems for manipulating light and sound need skilled technicians. PEARL offers experience to local people, who may then apply newly acquired skills in the film studio.

With all that drama and on this scale, it would be easy for the architecture to become an incidental footnote, as can easily happen in sophisticated research facilities. It is a tribute to P&P – and their fellow professionals – that they recognised the parameters and the scope of their brief, but found ways to create a rich language around what could all too easily have been an industrial shed.

The sheer scale of the volume is breathtaking. Experimental space in the middle flanked by storage area (right) and the groove with a viewing balcony (left)

Photo: Tim Soar

Two aspects of the design demonstrate this. The first is the scalloped corten steel cladding which wraps the building. It is not necessary to agree fully with Goodfellow that the western façade echoes, except in the faintest of references, UCL’s pediment and portico, but the steel did prove fertile ground for artistic expression, as the ghostly incorporation of the letters UCL shows from a distance. Closer up, the apparently randomised perforations in the steel recall the way crowds move through space or the murmuration of starlings, gently indicating the interior purposes on the exterior.

With dappled sunlight from the perforations in the cladding and timber lining, the ‘welcome space’ is unexpectedly welcoming

Photo: James Tye

The exterior precinct was an important consideration. Of the few remaining buildings on the site one, with a particularly fine concrete shell roof, lies just west of PEARL. Together they form a courtyard which introduces an element of urbanity, and with the supergraphic approach to signage on the façade, helps to make the site legible to visitors, while also providing space for the large objects which will be moved in and out.

The second obvious way P&P have demonstrated architectural sensibility is in what Tyler calls ‘the groove’, a warm, human-scale, timber-lined series of spaces that provide a ‘welcome area’, staff work and relaxation spaces, academic facilities, reception and meeting areas for guests and visitors. The welcome area, reached from the main entrance, lies on the north-west corner, with the rest of the groove running along the building’s northern edge. It fits, as Goodfellow is keen to point out, with the overall portal frame structure, but introduces an extra floor and exudes the sort of sociable possibilities that are essential to Tyler’s research.

The groove is flexible but comfortable work and reception space

Photo: James Tye

Over the last two years, the relationship between academic research and society’s wellbeing has come into sharp focus. This covers a huge range of activity, from the abstractions of statistical modelling to the intimate study of molecular microbiology. Tyler has himself looked into optimum configurations of workplaces and other installations to mitigate transmission of disease, and is helping to develop another institution alongside PEARL which will specifically study ventilation.

If we have learned anything over this period it is that such research is vital in both the short and long term. PEARL’s architecture, far superior to most recent research labs, does not, perhaps, quite reach the heights of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. But it represents something vital – a serious attempt to provide a facility that not just supports research, but involves the public in undertaking it, and in due course benefiting from its results.

In addition to his responsibilities at WAF, Jeremy Melvin is a visiting professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture, part of UCL.