Aspire Point is a 26-storey tower containing 445 rooms for Queen Mary University of London students. Located on Stratford High Street, near the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, it was designed by MJP Architects for student residential specialist Alumno Developments. The immediate context, largely redeveloped in an ad hoc manner since the war, is characterised by tall buildings on Stratford High Street and domestic-scaled buildings interspersed between them and in the hinterland.
Previously occupied by a petrol station, the site has all-round street frontages, with high-rise hotels on each side and 1960s housing behind, in a mix of towers and two- and three-storey homes. Typical of the period, rather than aligning with the street, the residential towers are orientated with their long axis north-south, and the rest of the housing layout follows suit. MJP’s tower, in contrast, addresses the street.
Within Aspire Point, most study-bedrooms are ensuite with shared kitchen/dining rooms, but there are also flats with shared shower rooms, ‘micro-flats’ for three occupants, and some studios. The base of the building fills the site, providing space for uses with wider community benefits, including two floors of artists’ studios and a cafe, all with separate entrances.
MJP designed the shared amenities and social facilities so as to promote social interaction and community living. “We’ve always focused on the ways in which the design can enable students to feel they belong, and make it easy for them to meet others”, says MJP’s Jeremy Estop. “For students living in flats, the kitchen/dining room is a natural social focus, so making them visible and easily accessible was a key concern. Small things can make a big difference, like glazed kitchen doors, so you can immediately see that there are people around, and it feels welcoming.”
Each ‘flat’ extends from a corner kitchen along two facades to minimise corridors. By locating two windows in each kitchen, views through the glazed doors reveal not only activity but also natural light beyond. Common rooms are located throughout the tower, their use encouraged by locating laundry rooms adjacent. A gallery for socialising and relaxation overlooks the entrance, so anyone arriving immediately sees people around. A large social study space, located on an upper floor, is already in high demand from students wanting a quiet place to work but not in the isolation of their room, while a rooftop common room affords views over the Olympic park. Plant rooms are at mezzanine level above the ground floor to maximise the active frontages around the entrance.
The acute corners of the triangular plan generate a slimmer profile when viewed obliquely than an equivalent rectangular footprint. The internal rooms, however, are orthogonal, and this is expressed externally as an assembly of rectilinear elements separated by recesses. These serve to accentuate the tower’s verticality, like fluting on a classical column, suggests Estop.
The preferred grouping of rooms, agreed with Alumno at the outset, was seven, and the shape works neatly to provide three flats per floor, sharing kitchen/dining rooms on each corner, and the requisite core area at the centre. The entrance loggia and base of the tower are similar in scale to the lower buildings that sit behind. They also form an obstacle to ‘down-wash’, diverting wind that is deflected down the face of the tower before it reaches the ground. The composition of the fenestration transforms from a finer ‘grain’ at the lower floors to much larger-scaled modules at the top, corresponding to the close and distant perspectives that are particular to tall buildings.
The hybrid frame uses precast concrete columns and in-situ slabs, prefabricated bathroom pods and stairs. The terracotta-clad unitised curtain walling was fabricated in factory conditions, and lifted into position on site, avoiding scaffolding. The terracotta has a lustrous ‘engobe’ finish which is dark in colour but reflective and responsive to different lighting conditions.