Robin Lee Architecture has established a much-needed space of communality and repose at University College Dublin, finds Andrew Clancy

Buildings.

Words
Andrew Clancy

Photos
Donal Murphy

There is, perhaps, an interesting study to be done on evolving attitudes to how universities procure buildings, as a means to understanding how they see themselves and their role in the world. With University College Dublin, relocated from its city centre sites to its present suburban location in the mid-twentieth century, it started with a design competition, won by a young Polish architect, Andrej Wejchert, who moved to Ireland to complete the commission.

The building and masterplan that resulted were highly influenced by Team 10, proposing an infrastructure of robust concrete buildings arranged about a roofed spine which sought at once to give an urbanity to the nascent campus, and yet (rumours say) it was broken up so that no space would be afforded for the students to riot – these plans being drawn up not long after the student uprisings of the late 1960s.

This centralised infrastructural approach was rapidly abandoned as the university began to expand. If it started as a gentle attempt at weak megastructure, it very quickly became self-described as a campus – most probably because the original design and masterplan could not easily scale to the pressures of the rapid expansion on the site over the last 30 years.

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The design of the £7m, 2059-square-metre building “is influenced both by Chinese courtyard buildings and by cloisters found in western architecture, where learning and contemplation are linked with the ritual of walking, and student wellbeing is enhanced by proximity to nature”, says the architect.

Yet recent buildings are both too proximate to one another to be a campus, and too incoherent in form and relation to generate urban density. Most of them are heavily articulated into complex forms, each apparently conceived without awareness of their neighbours. Each building possesses its own cafe, selling similar goods from differently branded disposable cups. Perhaps it is the perfect situation in which students can be trained for the individualism of their future careers. Paths meander haphazardly between hard paved areas and patches of landscaping. It is hard to say in what way these buildings differ from the corporate headquarters that might be found in a suburban office park.

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These buildings were in the main procured through the standard approach of fee bids and the like, and while each is perfectly competently delivered, it is also true that there are few moments when the architecture tries for a higher goal than competence. While there is open space, there is little space for collectivity, and there is perhaps a commentary too as to how tertiary eduction in this part of the world is evolving away from its vocational roots, to something more approximate to a service industry.

It is welcome, therefore, that UCD has recently made moves to show that it understands the limits of this approach, and has held two different design competitions. The most recent, administered by Malcolm Reading and focussed on delivering a structure to house the school of architecture, was won by Steven Holl. The other, held some years ago, was an open design competition administered by the RIAI and won by London-based Robin Lee Architecture. This latter project was to design the Irish presence for the Confucius Institute – a non-profit organisation associated with China’s ministry for education.

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The two upper levels are extensively glazed and detailed throughout with gold-anodised aluminium, intended to create a shimmering appearance in daylight hours and animate the building like a lantern at night. Deep aluminium mullions provide shading and privacy to study areas, meeting rooms and offices. Ventilation openings are concealed behind fixed perforated panels detailed with a lattice pattern abstracted from traditional motifs developed following research visits to Beijing and Suzhou.

The building is sited at one edge of the sprawl mentioned above, close to where the entrance road loops into the university. It is a tricky site, held between the hulk of the engineering school to the north, the road to the east, a small Rossi-like chaplaincy to the south and a lake to the west. Lee has taken a careful, contextual approach, seeking to add a moment of coherence and legibility to the fragmented spaces of the campus.

Its simple square form steps inward at each level. Presenting almost identical elevations in all directions, it draws its influences from both Palladian plan types, and traditional Chinese building forms. Recognising that in its location there is no ‘back’ or ‘front’, the square plan of the building has been calibrated and oriented to address the chaplaincy, the road and the lake, while also framing a small garden against the gable of the engineering building.

The stacked and stepped form deals cleverly with scale, presenting the building as three-storey from a distance, but with the upper levels receding as one approaches, to the point that once close to the building only the lower level is visible, a low background from which to look back at the surroundings.

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The oak-lined atrium is capped by a timber lattice. It serves as a wayfinding space as well as “imparting serenity to the heart of the building and delivering daylight and natural ventilation”, says the architect. On the ground floor, columns create a “forest-like experience around an open central space”.

This makes the entrance to the central full-height timber-clad atrium more impactful, and it is here that the building sets its thesis out. In a campus of objects it offers a good room for the communal life of the building to be celebrated and visible to itself. On the lower level this space gives onto a cafe, gallery, library and auditorium which look into the central atrium and out to various spaces beyond – all that is apart from the entrance, which is screened from offering a direct view to and from the atrium by a wall which makes people turn twice when entering, making them aware of the full width of the building and allowing the atrium’s consideration as a room to be held.

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Above, the circulation to the teaching spaces is lit by and looks onto this same atrium. There is an enjoyable ambiguity in the structure of this space, with the open corners at the lower level allowing the columns to be read with the lined atrium above while giving a gentle grace to the way the space opens up diagonal views within and to the spaces beyond. We see this same game arise in the corners of the overall building, where the stepped forms produce an opportunity for the structure to present an almost figurative presence – something at its richest in the two corner circulation stairs, with their views over the receding parapets to the landscape beyond offering a counterpoint the interiority of the atrium.

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While this technique also operates in the learning spaces these have been somewhat compromised by the need to use standard systems such as ceiling tiles so that they can form part of the standard maintenance regime of the university.

This small, carefully considered building might provide some lessons to how others may continue to build on this site. In its modest consideration of the community of the building’s occupants, it offers a reaffirmation of the social role of education, and the background role that architecture must play in supporting this. This is an infrastructural architecture, perhaps, not as overt megastructure, but as a facilitation of incident, conversation or repose.

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