The new engineering building is the third structure that you have designed at Lancaster University, but you also designed the master plan to update the 1960s campus. How does the new building fit into the larger plan?
John McAslan, Intl. Assoc. AIA: The master plan identified new buildings, replacement buildings, and refurbished buildings, and its first iteration goes back seven or eight years. It was not just looking at building new structures and remodeling existing ones, but also at the landscape and how to connect elements and associated facilities―in total about $500 or $600 million worth of construction to be spread over a decade more. The engineering building was identified for a location close to a series of other associated facilities, on the site of a redundant sports hall which was demolished as part of our project.
This is a publicly funded university without a huge capital budget. Where did their commitment to good architecture and good planning come from?
Lancaster is one of the post–World War II universities where there was a commitment to publicly funded higher education. A very good firm, Shepheard Epstein Hunter, was the master planner and architect for a number of the original buildings. Their work started a commitment on behalf of the university to good post–World War II architecture, and robust, well-made higher education buildings; even through successive facilities departments they’ve always hired good architects. Lancaster is not a highly endowed university―their level of endowment is very low, especially compared to U.S. universities. If you take every university in Britain, including Oxford and Cambridge, the total endowment of all of them together is less than the endowment for the University of Texas, which is more than $25 billion. Sixty percent goes to Oxford and Cambridge, so the total endowment for every British university except Oxford and Cambridge is about $8 billion, which is nothing―it’s a tough call to get good buildings out of that.
There’s a real clarity and simplicity to the engineering building. How does the building itself express some of the ideas of engineering?
The route that we took was to try and reflect the precision of the engineering through the precision of the architecture, and for that precision to be reflective of the way the original campus was built, which was out of concrete and brick in the robust language of post–World War II materials. The engineering building was quite bespoke in its volumes and its loadings and its servicing requirements, but it needed also to be reasonably generic and adaptable to future needs.
The detailing on this building seems simple, but with a materials palette that clearly shows a lot of care.
It’s a very simple palette of handmade natural materials―concrete, wood, and glass. And it’s consistent with the palette that we’ve developed for the previous buildings on the site and that are articulated elsewhere on the campus. It’s a modestly scaled concrete frame, with a brick façade. But there is a lot of natural ventilation through openings on the perimeter, both natural vents in the perforated panels and within the façade system. There are really no suspended ceilings so we get the advantage of height, volume, and nighttime cooling throughout.
Your work is all very modern in style, and as you say, relates to the midcentury campus, but there also seems to be a nod to classicism in the exposed concrete frame. Do you see that in the proportions of the building?
However you define classicism, I think the engineering building is quite a carefully proportioned building. Its principal reference is the postwar architecture of not just that university but similar universities that were state-funded, and, in fact, a bit like our national health service―the great development of social endeavor after the war. It’s reflecting the kind of spare, modernist, and honest aesthetic that was determined with those social movements. It’s not a Brutalist aesthetic. It’s not the Paul Rudolph or Denys Lasdun architecture of the postwar era, it’s an architecture that was slightly more modest and understated. There is a kind of classical language there, an understated competence and integrity in the architecture. There are no frills or funny bits. It’s just a modest, robust structure; hopefully fit for its purpose, but with enough care in its materiality and its realization to make it a building of quality rather than just a functional box.
What has it been like for you to watch this project evolve over time, and to continue to realize some of the ideas that you initiated 10-plus years ago?
Most architects want the relationship to be more than a single-building relationship. You want a chance to do more work. And it’s funny, when we did our first little building on the campus, we assumed that would be it. And then we then got a second building. When we went for this interview, we sort of just assumed we wouldn’t get it, but we secured it. It was a real demonstration from the client of their faith in what we’ve done. Maybe we won’t secure another one for a bit, but I think it’s key to be able to develop a relationship with a single client and to feel that it is one that is evolving. To have that kind of ongoing relationship is really valuable.
Cost: $12.52 million (£8.4 million) (construction cost); $18.26 million (£12.25 million) (total cost)