Richard Murphy Architects’ housing for postgraduate students in Edinburgh has a concern for conviviality at its heart
The sloping site for Richard Murphy Architects’ new postgraduate student accommodation block for the University of Edinburgh, to the south-east of the Royal Mile, is bounded on three sides by roads, with the blind box of Faulkner Browns’ swimming pool complex immediately to the east, undistinguished student and council housing to the south and west, while to the north, on the other side of Holyrood Road, there is to be more student accommodation, which is currently under construction.
The generation of an architectural idea from this existing context was unpromising, but as the brief required 248 student rooms and ancillary accommodation on this tight sloping site, alternative built forms were limited, and the peripheral layout was one of the few options open.
The student rooms rise up to seven storeys and face outwards towards the street, irrespective of their orientation, surrounding a landscaped courtyard on two levels. The rooms are accessed by galleries, with common rooms either at the external corners or located in towers in the court: it is an extremely efficient layout, with only two staircases and two lifts serving the whole building.
Although the courtyard is somewhat overshadowed by the up to seven-storey accommodation around it, once the soft landscaping is completed it should be an attractive space, similar in scale and appearance to the many small courts at the backs of the tenements in the Royal Mile.
David Roberts, the architect of several student accommodation buildings in Cambridge from the 1950s to the 1970s, noted that the relationship between the kitchen/common rooms and the circulation was important to achieve liveliness in the design. This was developed by the late Richard MacCormac of MJP with the concept of ‘conviviality’ in a number of student buildings, with the kitchens organised around the staircase access. Here, Richard Murphy Architects has a similar ambition, and has tried to open up the internal corridors in the flats to the gallery access (although design and build cost restrictions have limited the amount of glazing possible) and has given the kitchens large windows to make activity within visible to the wider community.
The student rooms themselves are quite small and plain, but brilliantly lit with angled Velfac windows that protrude from the external envelope, lined with timber internally and clad in dark anodised aluminium externally. These sparkle on the precast concrete facades, which curve to follow the site boundary and are patterned to appear like brickwork. (Rick Mather employed a very similar window device in his 1995 ARCO building at Keble College, Oxford). The shadows and the reflections, and the light on the glass and the internal timber, create brilliant patterns in the sunlight, while their precision and quality suggest a more generous budget than was actually the case.
The top storey is floated over the rest, and here some of the student accommodation has balconies and long views to the sea, and there are also two communal terraces.
The service accommodation is located below in a stepped plinth, where the large communal lounge faces the main thoroughfare of Holyrood Road. This should provide an interesting and lively dialogue between the activity in the road and the lounge, but the university decided to introduce a translucent film to the glass here for reasons of privacy, which is unfortunate and weakens the interaction of the building with the city and also has a rather suffocating effect on the otherwise generous lounge.
This challenging brief required a very high density, and compared to Richard Murphy Architects’ other postgraduate student housing at the Queen’s University in Belfast (2012), where the accommodation is orientated around staircases and addresses an open landscaped garden, here the shaded central courtyard is gated and not so inviting. Perhaps if fewer rooms had been required, the southern facade might have been lowered a little to allow more sunshine into this central space.
While the external elevations are extremely successful, internally the quality of the floor finish in the galleries is rather poor, and the landscaping at the momentis disappointing, although the university certainly has the resources and expertise to improve this. Overall however, the possibilities for interaction and conviviality have been well developed, and this is a very successful urban building that adds a well-detailed sparkle to the area.
Richard Murphy Architects
Structural, civil and m&e engineer
CDMC, cost consultant
Sandy Brown Associates
University of Edinburgh
Walkways, spiral stairs
Mesh stair cladding
Eyetech (James & Taylor)