Hult International School

James R. Payne

At the eastern edge of the City of London, where the financial centre meets Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper tour guides dressed in scruffy greatcoats lead tourists down rat-infested alleyways. The scenery for their imaginary trip to the 1890s is gradually being dismantled as the glass towers of the city sweep eastwards to almost reach the curry houses of Brick Lane, the centre of London’s Bangladeshi community. High rise luxury residential and office towers are being built at a ferocious pace, ready for the completion of the Cross Rail underground railway that will link West to East under London, giving easy access to Canary Wharf and London City Airport in the East and Heathrow Airport beyond West London.

As well as being a financial centre for Europe and – arguably – the world, London is now a very popular destination for international students. Boutique student housing towers have popped up in this area to cater to this growing demand for a more standardised and secure ‘product’ than insecure and often squalid London bedsits. Recent controversy has surrounded a recent residential development here, damned for its segregation of luxury tenants and ‘affordable’ flats, with the latter accessed by a so-called ‘poor door’ at the side. The developer of this Aldgate tower was forced to remove an overly aggressive advert from it’s website depicting an ‘American Psycho’ style character looking down on the city below from his slick penthouse flat.

At the start of Commercial Road, a long road that originally connected the City to the docks, Hult International Business school has taken up residence in a collection of converted buildings centred on the old St. George’s Brewery. The Hult organisation, which has diversified from its original core of international language teaching under the EF banner, takes on long leases of properties and converts them with a light touch to respond to their needs. Sergison Bates Architects won the commission to convert the premises into the undergraduate campus of the Hult Business School headquarters in London. With campuses in San Francisco, Boston, Shanghai and Dubai, the school caters to international students, possible future denizens of financial centres and executive airport lounges. Hult has a strong design ethos, with its own design department dedicated to responding to a young, mobile and totally digitally connected demographic with high expectations, not just of the teaching but the environment and overall experience. It is not hard to see the attraction to students and parents: a safe but stimulating learning environment in an edgy and fashionable part of the city.

From the street, the campus is unassuming, a brick extension to the west of the glazed tile entrance to the Grade 2 listed brewery was added by a recent shell and core project. Sergison Bates took on this collection of old and new spaces, the old brewery sandwiched between new open concrete floor plates at the front and a protected student accommodation tower behind. This is accessed through the front extension via an internal passage, a right of way with its own London street sign, “Education Square” displayed in the street lobby window.

The key decision of the recent extension was to align the floor levels of old and new, Sergison Bates’ work to the structure and envelope of the building was therefore minimal. The most noticeable new intervention in the main lobby is a huge winding, timber clad stair touching down onto the unfinished raised access deck floor. With its oversized landings surveying the ground lobby and first-floor caf&eacute lounge, this is the social hub of the school and the connecting element of the ensemble, which otherwise relies on small internal stairs. Sitting within the lightwell created by the concrete plates of the previous extension, the structural span is impressive as support along the listed brewery wall to the side was not permitted. 600mm deep steel stringers are hidden within the chunky finned douglas fir carapace and bear on artfully unresolved additional steel columns. In the basement, this extra reinforcement runs down to an eccentric and sculptural steel assembly of beams, columns. And diagonal struts. At the top of this winding stair, the glazed atrium roof has been lifted a storey to allow access to the third floor and a roof terrace.

Apart from this strategic, enabling work, compiling an inventory of existing spaces was the first move in the design process, a well-established method that Sergison Bates share with their close contemporaries Caruso St John. As Stephen Bates explains “Every space is different and amazing, we approached the old and new spaces non-judgementally.” Existing materials, finishes and eccentric details are accepted and added to with rooms within rooms. A wonderfully calm environment has been created, large seminar rooms have been inserted in the large span concrete floor plates. These are quietly conditioned spaces, fed by large capacity air ducts diffused at low speed through perforated wall panels and fully kitted out with state of the art furniture and audiovisual facilities. The naturally ventilated spaces around can be seen through the articulated acoustic screens, windows at lower and higher levels forming an interior urbanism between the more relaxed shared spaces and the more focussed teaching rooms.

The robust Douglas fir walls are treated with a chalky white limewash, plywood panels sitting within the staggered frames are perforated and studded in an integrated way with the signage developed by Graphic Thought Facility. Stencilled room numbers and letters recall Corbusian detail drawings or Team 10 manifestos from the 1950s. The visual and architectural language of Alison and Peter Smithson is even more explicit in the spaces of the old brewery, where chamfered cornered pavilions sit in the narrower floor plate amongst cast iron columns. The “conglomerate ordering” of these spaces is a joyful interplay of glazed rooms, masonry walls, bays and left over spaces, the cosiest being a corner on the second floor just big enough for two felty armchairs. A set of ‘corals’ mediate between the secondary infill architecture and the plush designer furniture that is all around. These lend themselves to solitary or informal group working, sitting upright at a desk or sprawled across an armchair. This is curated to be of a more shapely and whimsical kind than the rectilinear standard issue leather furniture of a typical corporate lobby, and consists of more recherché Italian and Danish influenced modernism. Above these fields of furniture that suggest use and inhabitation, services are exposed and freely ordered on the ceilings. Whether groups of large pendants or dynamic fields of fluorescent strips, lighting is often coloured and configured to suggest direction and different atmospheres within the interstitial spaces of the floor plan. The environmental strategy has been carefully modelled and calibrated to place conditioned classrooms where natural light is not required as much as the lounge/study areas. The thermal mass of the concrete is left exposed and the central stair atrium acts as a stack-effect, thermal chimney.

Within the brewery building itself, intervention to the building fabric is minimal and amounts to a coat of paint or leaving surfaces unchanged. The unfinished, original brick walls, floorboards, decorative steel columns, and characterful tile patterns leave a memory of the working brewery. In some areas this has been complemented by a lick of floor paint to introduce pattern to a concrete floor. In the attic spaces, offices and quiet lounge areas in dormer bays nestle under the white painted timber boarded ceilings, here floor standing lamps reinforce a feeling of the domestic.

This relaxed but carefully composed assemblage of found and additive elements is hardly a new paradigm for Sergison Bates, having pursued this strategy in many adaptive re-use projects of existing buildings since the mid-1990s. Their conversion of a former Victorian print works for a graphic design company in 1997 shares a formal language and a ‘light touch’ strategy with the Hult Business school. Their more robust remodelling of a paint works in Wandsworth of 1999-2004 included building a whole new storey of rooftop apartments. Since then the practice has been awarded commissions in other European countries, especially Belgium and Switzerland, where their approach to sensitively engaging with existing new buildings with ambitious new programmes has found many admirers. For Bates, the Hult project provided an opportunity to realise an unrealised project designed in Brussels for the Rits University, won through the Open Call competition system in Belgium in 2004. There is more to their work than the discerning ‘As Found’ aesthetic of the Smithsons, the ‘architectural collage’ of early Frank Gehry and his development of the informal working environment at Chiat Day in Los Angeles is apparent as the architects become more tolerant and accepting of the story of a building. Whether the young students posting beautiful selfies on instagram fully appreciate the rich history of where they live and study is another matter.

James R Payne, Senior Lecturer at the Sir John Cass School of Architecture in London.  Director of Archipelago Architects