A New Slant On Graduate Centres

This refurbishment and addition to an old lockkeeper’s cottage by Surface Architects, overlooking Regents Canal in Mile End (in the East End of London), houses a graduate centre for Queen Mary University of London. As the new structure wraps around the old rectangular brick building, both elevation and plan eschew at the same time either the horizontal, axis, or any reference to the prevailing geometry of the environment. I think it was Steve Martin who said writing about music was like dancing about architecture. However, dancing was never my forte, so words, absurd as they may be, will have to do. Despite my raised eyebrows at the cursory dismissal of gravity or the horizon as an orienting influence, I cannot help loving this building (seen to date only in photographs). But as far back as the discussion now goes, (way into the Eighties, I think) I still find it difficult to unreservedly admire the perversity of the geometry.

As a designer, it seems that “interesting” as this composition is, and as elegantly as it is carried out, one is still left with the lurking fear that it is only some kind of intellectual game that ends up nowhere. I had a tutor at the AA who once commented on a colleague’s scheme that he had a genius at solving situations he should have never have gotten into in the first place. But to the extent that the wackiness and defiance of nature may end up delighting the users (and myself), it must in my mind be judged a success in that regard. I am no believer in architectural morality. In my book, if it feels good, do it. But is this enough in the long run? Are we destined to end up looking at this building with fondness in fifty years, or as a failed “it-seemed-a-good-idea-at-the-time” embarrassment. Probably, in the long run, as with all our architectural excesses, it will depend on just how well it was done. In this case, the sheer energy and playfulness of this thing may well pull it through.

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