Top marks for RSHP’s statement building for London School of Economics

Top marks for RSHP’s statement building for London School of Economics

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has cut the ribbon on a new building on the campus – the biggest and tallest yet. Designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), the Central building has a shifting façade that responds to its urban context and environmental conditions.

The School launched a campus master plan in 2011 that overhauled the whole Holborn site. Involving demolition, redesign and rebuilding, the plan saw the impressive Saw Swee Hock Centre designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects open in 2014. Grafton Architects’ Marshall Building is currently on site, and completing in 2021.

While the reconfiguration has been unfolding, in the meantime students have forming their own paths through the site – always finding the most direct, yet complicated routes from A to B – around a lift core and out of a fire escape, relying on LSE’s trademark red cube as a guide. ‘Business as usual’ was the biggest challenge of the whole project for Terry Spraggett, managing director of public sector construction at Mace.

After hurdling complicated planning applications and negotiating a land swap with Westminster, RSHP’s building is the latest piece to be slotted into the puzzle – and it solves a significant part of the campus puzzle. With it, it brings a new square, a stepped timber seating and planting area, much more space than its predecessor. Including seminar rooms, conference-sized auditorium, study spaces, a ground floor public café, faculty offices, and a new alumni centre, it’s a proud new landmark for LSE.

LSE RSHP building facade
View of the building from the library plaza. Photography: Mark Gorton / RSHP

Creating a focal point for the campus was an important part of the brief for Tracy Meller, partner at RSHP, who headed up the project. RSHP certainly know how to make an impact, yet there was also the (closely) surrounding architecture to consider. To the square, the building is a colourful LSE block expressing modernism, with its yellow louvres and a glazed façade that reveals red ceilings and open stairways inside the building. Yet overlooking Houghton street, a small road linking it and the campus to the Strand, it quietens down, adjusting its colours and levels to the historic façade opposite.

As well as aesthetically impressive, the façade design enables the building’s BREEAM outstanding rating. Increasing in depth as they rise, the louvres shade the building and provide a framework for windows that can be opened to naturally ventilate 70 per cent of the building.

The design evolved a fair bit from the competition stage. Brexit happened just before tender and the cladding went up in price by half a million pounds overnight. Plans had to change, but the Central building maintained its presence, functionality, and uniqueness.

There’s an auditorium for 200 people beneath the open-air square, reached by a staircase designed for socialising and informal meetings. There’s also the ‘Academic stair’ that unfolds in double height spaces through the faculty levels from level three to 12. It encourages a midday meander down to another department, instead of rolling into the lift on default.

The student levels feature open plan spaces for informal study and plenty of soft work booths in orange and grey that complementing the colour palette of the interiors – exposed concrete sofits, pigeon grey-painted steel, red acoustic baffles and blue staircases.

The building sees the trial launch of the ‘LSE-style lecture theatre’ to rival the classic Harvard-style theatre – ‘not that we are competitive or anything’ says Julian Robinson, director of estates at LSE. This one-of-a-kind theatre design features two sets of tiered desks facing each other, so students can easily switch from individual to group working by swivelling their chairs around. ‘Like the Houses of Parliament, it is set up for debating – semi-confrontational with chaos in the middle.’

Once you’ve wound your way up various stairs, your reward will be access to three outdoor terraces. From the 13th floor, you can step outside to see London from any angle – the spire of the neighbouring Central London County Court looms particularly close. If you look down onto the LSE campus, you’ll spot several pockets of planted spaces populated with seating, it’s a campus of rooftop terraces. So while building works continue at ground level, students can search out some space above the city. §

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