Smithsons’ buildings for University of Bath II

July 10, 2011

The School of Architecture and Building Engineering (E6)

What is ‘Conglomerate ordering”

To understand the most significant building by Smithsons on the campus, the school of Architecture and Building Engineering or E6, one must try to comprehend the ideas behind ‘Conglomerate ordering’ which emerged in Sienna period of ILAUD.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilaud  This building demonstrates many of these ideas and twenty years of use have also thrown some light on Smithsons hopes and expectations.

Following summary is abstracted from AJ 30 November 1988

1CO.*  ‘ A building of conglomerate ordering is hard to retain in mind… it is elusive except when one is actually there; then it is perfectly lucid.

2CO.    ‘It brings all our senses into play through the widest possible differences: fear and pleasure mixed together.

3CO.    ‘The building has a thick building-mass; (as La Granccia di Cuna and Santa Maria della Scala) not very high…penetrated from the top for light and air.

4CO.    ‘The roof of a building is another face …all faces are of equal value, all equally considered, but non are “elevations”.

5CO.    Conglomerate buildings are an inextricable part of larger fabric .It has no back, no front; it is equally engaged with all it confronts. A change within its “convention of use” enhances its sense of order.

6CO.    Its fabric can accept interventions.

7CO.    It is dominated by one material… the conglomerate’s matrix.

8CO.    It seems to be pulled-down to meet the ground, not the ground built-up to meet the building.

9CO.    It is lumpish in weight and has weight.

10CO.  Its bearing walls and columns diminish in thickness as their load or need for mass diminishes; walls and column spacing is irregular, responding to use and natural placing.

11CO.  It has a variable density plan and a variable density section.

*The numerical referencing above does not represent any order of importance and simply being used to refer to my descriptions/observations regarding this building.

 

 E6

I consider the location and design of this entrance building as pivotal for the campus. Not only it was to act as a ‘sign post’ for entrance but it was to perform the task of moving thousand of students and staff from ground level to main raised deck and down again.  It was built well after completion of 60’s campus development, indeed almost at the end of the productive life of the architects, who were also going to show their final hand to test and explain  ‘Conglomerate ordering’ among other thoughts.

The best way to share my views of this long awaited visit is to understand and explain architects intentions and then try to share the buildings  in their present context. The wear and tear caused by the general use and age and any changes due to change of functions can then be highlighted. I am afraid some effort is required on our part to understand the architectural process used by Smithsons which produced a small body of disparate work of undisputed architectural significance.

Let us start by describing the impact of arriving at the campus for a first time visitor who has just parked the car in nearby visitors’ car park. The positioning of a large bus stop/vehicle turning place with bus shelters around it and  pedestrian friendly surfaces, surrounding landscaping and buildings announce that this is more than a bus stop and makes you register it almost like a town square.

This feeling of arrival is reinforced by the presence of a slightly odd end of a longish slab building which is welded to this ‘arrival space’ near one edge at a slight angle as though it is trying to envelope the ‘space’ just described.

Since you have no clue as how to enter this huge complex of buildings, your eyes run past the end of the ‘odd’ building and there is no doubt in your mind that a major route is being announced by  presence of very wide steps attached to this building looking straight at you. This invitation (with an Italian accent) is irresistible and without any hesitation you undertake this journey of discovery.

Oscar Niemeyer’s sketch from his 2003 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is for me the best analogy I can offer (with the sincerest apologies to Smithsons but possibly delight of Neiymer). Can you imagine asking some student at the bus stop for directions to get to Architects Department and getting a reply  “Go up to the knee and turn left, but don’t take the lower path”  or “Library? ah! go right up to the belly button and turn right”.

The wide steps are arranged some distance apart at different angles hugging the side of the long building. You notice the steps reduce in width as you climb and you also gradually find yourself under the cover of upper construction of this building. You are also aware of obstacles like balustrades and local ramps near doors trying to impede your upward journey.

If you happen to look into the building through the windows on left, you are bound to notice large display of architectural photographs fixed to a corridor wall running parallel to the route you are following. Some entrance doors to this corridor and signs indicate that these doors take you to the School of Architecture. If you look to your right and backwards you would have gained enough height to see distant campus building and the country side.

After a fairly long walk but gentle ascent, these steps bring you to a very large platform on the right.  This space has trees and is surrounded by lots of high building on each side and bridging overhead. The  ‘odd’ concrete building with attached steps which offered  cover to this route  has now attached itself to one of the older arcaded buildings around this raised area, and you are still walking in an older arcade.

(The width of Smithson steps was predetermined by an existing arcade of the same width to which these originally connected to, well before the upper deck was reached. This in not the case any more, as the deck has been extended towards E6 to meet it and a new lift has been located here basically to for disabled users. This act of arrival via steps of fairly restricted width to a very wide platform originally was a puzzle to me as there was no apparent reason for not finding a more generous stepped ramped approach. Another set of stairs has been added to the other side of the road as well   (second of Oscar Niemeyer’s sketch legs).

Having reached your destination, like any sensible architect, you retrace you steps and experience the journey backwards and explore the other side of this ‘oddity’ of a building. This is an entirely different world. A great deal of raw building materials and machinery paraphernalia dominates the back yard; you obviously are in the Building Engineering department of the campus. This area has its own vehicular access and much more formalized disposition of windows responding to other surrounding buildings. There is also a bit of playing with forms (God forbid!) as the back of lecture theatre shows its presence by two chamfered walls expressed on external elevation.

When you see the end of the building facing the ‘square’ carefully, it becomes apparent that this also acts as a cross section explaining the assembly of the constituent parts (corridors, roof lights, Workshops supporting studios, roof platform for daylight studies for school of architecture).

There are two doors linking School of Architecture to the grand staircase at slightly different levels and in turn connected with another local circulation passage running parallel to the main stepped route offering views in and out and also offering on display some architectural activities and serving a generous crit room also acting as a lecture space. Two stairs and a lift also connects the entrance level to serve most of studios, seminar and workrooms on two floors above and access to the ground level below.

A walk in the school of architecture soon reveals that there is a great shortage of social and informal meeting spaces throughout the building. The circulation spaces are too restricted to offer any other meaningful activity. I assume it is a direct result of financial straitjacket architects found themselves in dealing all the work on this campus.

A quick look at the list of ‘conglomerate ordering’ (with numerical references above) reveals that Smithsons have managed to achieve most of their aims.

1CO- I can verify that building is hard to retain in mind as despite my best efforts to recall what I saw internally, I was unable to draw a plan with any certainty.

2CO- matter of all senses I am afraid is difficult to comment on. Fear and pleasure are strong words. The daylight quality in studios and views are pleasurable and nice.

3CO- Building has thick mass and lit from the top indeed.

4CO- All faces, including the roof are well considered and are of equal value.

5CO- The building equally engaged with all it confronts. Some major changes within the building have already successfully taken place without any change to sense of order.

6CO- Fabric is continuing to receive interventions and thriving. For examples most of the studios are new interconnected with new openings and various walls have been added or altered.

7CO- The use of Bath stone and concrete frame remains the conglomerate’s matrix and weathering well. Horizontal banding of concrete is even more pronounced because of lichen growth on it.

8CO-The grand staircase literally pulls the building to ground. The walk on grand staircase offers interesting little incidents but does not make any attempts to perform visual gymnastics which have become the hallmark of new generation of architects. The real contribution lies in linking one newly created space to an existing one, without trying to dominate any but keeping the interests alive throughout this transition of height.

9CO-Building is lumpish and has weight.

10CO-Walls and columns respond to load and reduce where possible. Columns are irregularly placed for many areas responding to use.

11CO- It has a variable density plan and section.

When the building opened all of the School of Architecture could not be accommodated here but now it is all under this stainless steel roof and looks very happily settled as one can gather from the usual assuring clutter of models drawings and odd furniture in well lived in studios.

The exposed services originally were considered crude but constant changes have proved that this was the right decision. The building must have absorbed many changes to services particularly in relation to new IT changing needs. It appears that the results are more than satisfactory and  continue the original relaxed looking distribution without any known failure of crops of young architects coming out of this school with phobias about exposed services. I have no doubt that this building would remain a fitting tribute to the architects  who chose to close their architectural account with this. It may take some time but I am sure it will mature like a good wine.

All old B&W photos, plans and various absracts taken from AJ of 30November1988.

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3 Responses to “Smithsons’ buildings for University of Bath II”


  1. the current masterplan for the university here
    http://www.bath.ac.uk/masterplan/documents/Masterplan.pdf
    shows the rationale for extending the parade east and adding the extra steps – from your photos it doesn’t look like they’ve done a very good job especially that clumsy lift.

    [the masterplan has a couple of sketches from the original design report showing the full 1960s megastructure scheme – three times as long with a tall cylindrical hotel tower that was to be the only part visible from central bath! i wish they had kept to that plan. the report was in the university library when i was a student – i might go back and try to find it]

    IMO this is by far the best smithson building at bath – the way it handles the ascent to the parade level is very good – especially for those who remember the slippery metal escape stair that was there before.

    • winslowhub Says:

      Thanks for posting the masterplan. I had a quick look and need to spend some time going through it. It looks most interesting and you are right, new additions are insipid and quite uninspiring, completely missing the original feel and intentions. I am intrigued about your description of metal stair you mention. Was it the one before E6 came in action? I assume IMO is E6. Did you ever use this building? If so do you recall the concrete stair spilling near the bus stop? I gather that was not alarmed and was a very useful route to buses and back, while the part nearest to roof exit was used as a spray booth. Health/ Safety and security soon stops these uses.
      Thanks for you input.


      • before E6 was built, there was an open-air metal fire escape stair to get down from the parade level. it was obviously temporary until they extended the parade, but once the university moved the bus stop to this point it became the chief point of entry! it was exposed to wind, rain and snow and slippery when wet.

        E6 was built after i left, but i went back to do part 3 in 1992 and saw it then. yes the back stair was used as a spray booth [the distinctive smell gave it away] – architects always use escape stairs for spray mounting, in every office i’ve worked in!

        [IMO means ‘in my opinion’]


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