Kingston School of Art, Haworth Tompkins

Edwin Heathcote

The character of an institution can be carried in its concrete and brick. The bones of a building are the armature which support the soft tissue of a student body and, even if students and tutors come and go, they leave traces and a residue of learning and engagement. Kingston School of Art has, since the 1930s, been a solid presence on the cultural scene, an institution which blends the nature of an out-of-town campus with a proximity to London which gives it a curious in-between position, a kind of suburban-boho idyll. It has grown from the 1930s quadrangle, a typically terrazzo and steel-windowed building with a hard-wearing municipal feel, to a large, lumbering, slightly confusing mass of structure rising above the small-scale suburban housing of Kingston’s edges.

When architects Haworth Tompkins were appointed to do a study of the site in 2015 they considered, at least for the more modern buildings, demolition and rebuilding but quickly understood that it would not lead to denser fabric and that the existing structure was largely sound. As perhaps Britain’s leading proponents of the reuse of cultural buildings, a practice with a profound appreciation of the qualities and the complexities of found space and the layering and accretion of architecture as a sedimentary process through time as well as space, they were perhaps the perfect designers for the job and, it seems to me, always unlikely to have attempted to start again.

Their work, particularly in theatre architecture, reveals a deep understanding of the crossover between cultural and industrial space, between spaces of representation and spaces of making. Theirs is an appreciation of the ad-hoc, hard-wearing world of use not as something to be hidden away but as something to be celebrated. And those are the qualities they have employed here.

The Mill Street building at the Knight’s Park campus, a 1970s behemoth built beside the neat 1930s art school and the picturesque, babbling Hogsmill River, had become a confusing warren of accretions and blockwork corridors, endlessly reconfigured as the institution grew inside it and disciplines and technologies emerged within it. Stripping it back in sections while the students continued their work around it was a complex logistical project but the continuation of everyday life and learning was equally critical in ensuring the fabric maintained its thread and its connections with study, never becoming something entirely new.

The building, a functional but broadly banal red brick and concrete block, has been described as having four back ends. As a school with a functional rather than a representational nature, one which has emerged over time rather than been rigorously planned, this sense of unassuming presence and a lack of formal axes or grandeur seems to suit it fine. The school has grown into the building, and then subsequently grown out of it.

The main move was to switch faculties around. Architecture, which had been in the 1930s quadrangle (and where I studied for the whole of my architectural education) has been shifted into the Mill Street site and its place in the tall-windowed studios taken by the fashion faculty where students now sit at their sewing and knitting machines using those excellent existing spaces intensively and efficiently. Fine art has moved out to another building where they have more and messier space (which is a shame as I always thought the artists brought a certain intensity to the campus). Things have been shifted around in the Mill Street block too but the extensive and well-equipped workshops which always inhabited the ground floor have remained in situ, (with another layer of machine shops now moved down from an upper floor) the incredible range of now often historical machine tools forming a kind of museum of industrial processes from turning and bending to cutting and sintering. The workshops here are, unusually, open access, so all students are able to use them after some basic training. And they do. The workshops become another communal space with those from wildly differing disciplines working together. The school’s ethos of ‘thinking through making’ is inscribed in the sheer scale of these workshops and, as other schools are being built predicated solely around digital technologies and interactions through screens, the industrial nature of this ground floor becomes even more critical to the school’s identity. From the river side, the building remains familiar in its scale and tone but yet considerably changed in its architectural articulation. What were dumb punched openings in brick walls have been enriched with Corten steel reveals and horizontal fins acting as brises soleil. The rusty colouring blends in with the tone of the brick and although the elevations are now more articulated than previously they remain very similar in effect. The Corten reaches right down to the benches at ground level which supplement the seating for the superb riverside student bar which remains the same sticky, dark, cheap and convivial place it always was. Also alongside the river are the spill-out spaces of the masonry workshops with the tables, slabs, tools and half-carved chunks of stone left as traces of what looks a very pleasant place to work.

The north elevation of the building has been more noticeably transformed. Strips of chamfered glazing angled at 45 degrees have been added to give clerestory north light to the studio spaces. All glazing has been replaced with high-performance systems and the naturally-lit studios around the edges of the building are naturally ventilated. Air handling systems were rationalised and moved to roof level freeing up space inside the building and the intensification of use has enabled a 20% uplift in the amount of usable space on the site within the same building footprint. A new, highly-insulated roof makes a big difference to thermal performance while the stepping back of the building has been used to create terraces for the students, notably in a ribbon of outdoor space running around the architecture faculty at the top of the building. The functions that do not require natural light, darkrooms, photography and film studios, some digital editing suites, are placed deep in the heart of the floor plates fully utilising the plan.

The architecture studios, like most of the spaces, are raw and have already been entirely inhabited by students and staff. Pegboard walls, plywood lockers, the original rough and ready furniture from the old building, exposed services in the ceilings and interlocking, double-height volumes all create a spatially complex but easy-to-navigate set of spaces with glimpses from one to another so that one is always aware of activity elsewhere, of the presence of other bodies. There is a deliberate lack of acoustic separation which leads to a little spillover form one space to another and a sense of busy inhabitation even when only part full. The spaces seem deliberately under-designed, never domineering and allowing the students to project their own ideas onto it. Where there were original concrete waffle ceiling these have been retained and left largely untouched. They look as good as new and probably better than what might have been affordable today. The closest thing to a new entrance is a small, Corten-clad pavilion at the eastern end of the building beside a small footbridge over the river which acts as a kind of signpost and shop-window. Facing a small row of terraced housing, the large window allows the school to engage the world outside in a way it never quite did in its previous incarnation in which all the activity was hidden behind oddly blank walls. It also accommodates a small workshop which can be opened at weekends without a full complement of staff and potentially can also be used by the wider community.

This is, in every way, a sustainable building. To reuse a 1970s structure of not much merit and to remake a flexible, adaptable and hardworking institution from it takes more ingenuity, invention and intelligence than demolition and rebuilding. There is, of course, the embodied energy in the concrete frame but there is also the embodied history of the school, the sense of place and the feeling that this is a structure which has nurtured generations of designers.

Kingston University recently hit the headlines with another building, the Townhouse by Grafton Architects a little down the road, which won the Stirling Prize, the UK’s highest-profile architecture award. This huge new-build flagship building, intended as a kind of library and third space for students as well as a public front for the university is almost the opposite of the art school in every way. In its scale, its ostentatious and massive concrete, its presence and its newness it is a self-conscious statement, a representational space. The art school meanwhile is quiet continuity. Other art and architecture schools, notably the new Royal College of Art by Herzog de Meuron in Battersea (Haworth Tompkins designed the much quieter and more workmanlike Dyson Building at the same campus), are determinedly more visible. But you might argue that in their scale and their architectural gestures they reflect the ongoing financialisation of the university in the UK. Bigger buildings to attract more students to justify bigger fees.

Kingston is not going to attract the same headlines as either off these but in its clever continuity and its incremental programme which has allowed continuous use of the site through construction, it is arguably a more useful and sustainable guide to a future in which we will need to be more careful with the buildings they have, valuing not only their embodied energy but their layers of use and inhabitation. The building here is background, it is an enabling - the work of the students is the foreground, the processes they use to create it and the pleasure they get from getting there. The architecture is the armature for all that. And that alone is enough.