Like many contemporary architects, Patel Taylor’s Roger Meyer is an unabashed fan of concrete. So you could describe the practice’s latest scheme for Essex University’s Colchester site, comprising an extension to its Albert Sloman Library and a new student services centre, somewhat of a dream project. “It’s a brutalist campus dating back to 1963 and was very deliberately set up that way,” explains Meyer, the project architect. “We’ve used a high-grade visual concrete finish on both the student centre and the library extension which nods back to the original in terms of its materiality and also its plan.”
It was a courageous move by Essex University to commission Architects Cooperative Partnership back in the 1960s, and the result was a visionary and strangely romantic masterplan, complete with lake, that made the most of a beautiful setting in the grounds of Wivenhoe House, just outside Colchester. Patel Taylor was brought on board to work on new (but complementary) plans for the site around 2011, first to update and extend the much-loved library with its formidable architectural legacy.
The practice’s brief was not to bring the facility screaming into the 21st century but rather to build upon and showcase its remarkable book collections. “There is a trend within academic, and certainly public, libraries to move over to more digitised media but it was very important to the university to keep a very serious book-based library,” Meyer asserts.
And that meant massively expanding its book storage facilities. With many rare books among the collections, Patel Taylor had to address environmental requirements, such as humidity control, but ultimately the university wanted the books to be seen and enjoyed. “The students needed greater access to the books and opportunities to study among them,” says Meyer. The solution was to house the books safely in a “dark place” in the centre of the plan with opportunities for study positioned around them. “We really wanted to celebrate the setting and so you have these huge windows that help to exaggerate the idea of taking the books or information [from the dark] into the light to study,” he continues.
The Silberrad Student Centre, as it is was christened, is an equally respectful addition to the campus and another ode to concrete that serves as a stunning new point of arrival to the university, boasting 24-hour student services. On the ground floor, the reception leads through to a three-storey atrium with an extraordinary staircase fashioned from steel and oak. The student union is positioned at the opposite end, with radio facilities, production space and studios all buffered away from the noisier, more sociable areas on the floor.
A student support desk (for the all-important registering) is one level up and was conceived as a permanent feature, while beyond it sits a series of flexible spaces, currently configured as offices for the support staff, but designed to evolve along with the university’s requirements. For now, these lucky people enjoy spectacular views onto the lake while there are yet more breathtaking vistas to peruse at the top of the building in the open-plan reading room, with lots of desking for study, and a meeting chamber/boardroom.
Initially it was mooted that the library extension and student services be housed in just one new facility, but Patel Taylor’s decision to develop two separate buildings with a landscaped area in between works well visually and practically, with more students than ever now using the north of the campus and engaging with the lake.
The architect’s additions add a new emphasis to the sense of place at this beautiful brutalist campus