Grafton’s Town House is a celebration of openness and community

Grafton’s Town House is a celebration of openness and community

Grafton Architects designs Town House for Kingston University London, combining a library and a dance school in a building conceived around light, openness and social interaction

‘What is architecture?’ asks Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell, as she walks through the brightly lit halls of the studio’s newly completed building at Kingston University. ‘It is a place for social interaction,’ she replies a moment later. Community was a key factor in the design decisions of RIBA Gold Medal-winning Grafton, who won the commission to create a structure to – rather unusually – combine a library and dance studios under a single roof. Welcome to Town House – the newest addition (named after an existing building on site) to the world-class academic institution in London’s southwest. 

It was in fact this combination – the need for vibrant dance spaces next to discreet reading rooms – that attracted the Dublin based architects, who were selected from a five-strong shortlist following a competition in 2013. ‘It was the juxtaposition of these two extremes that we found extraordinarily interesting,’ explains Farrell, who heads the practice together with Shelley McNamara. This, and the idea of creating a space for the local community – both students and permanent Kingston residents – were the two pillars that shaped Grafton’s vision for the design. 

Stepping inside, their intention becomes instantly apparent through the sheer openness of the building – both physical and symbolic. There are no barriers towards the street, so anybody can walk in and stroll around the library or get a coffee at the canteen. It was important for both architects and client that the building felt welcoming to all. ‘Generosity of scale and spirit form the part of the university,’ says Farrell.

Photography: Ed Reeve

At the same time, the interior is composed of large, interconnected halls and double and triple height spaces – the entrance lobby in fact extends almost to the full height of the building, with staircases dramatically hanging from the floorplates, adding a sculptural touch. Nothing seems hidden away, although clever niches were created for when extra privacy is needed. The street facing colonade and a continuation of the floor material from outside in are designed to encourage people to step inside. 

For a building that is primarily made out of concrete – constructed by the multi-award-winning contractor Willmott Dixon using prefabricated elements – the whole feels extraordinarily light. This is supported by large openings throughout and the elegant but hardwearing, everyday materials, such as wood, which help create a sophisticated but comfortable atmosphere, entirely fit for purpose. 

At the building’s heart sits an auditorium. It feels fluid and bright, even though placed at the heart of the volume, going deep into the floorplate. But the whole building ‘is pushing activity towards its outer boundaries and the light’, explains Farrell. ‘We didn’t want this to be a black box, we wanted the space to be used for the longest possible amount of time, so now it is in use even when not in use.’ So partitions can be drawn back to allow for natural light to pour in, through the glass expanses of the facade. The space’s flexible nature means it can be adapted to a variety of uses and performances. Meanwhile around and above it are placed rows of bookshelves and reading rooms of varied levels of quietness, and dance studios, which have been meticulously researched and insulated to ensure neighbours don’t disturb each other. 

Concrete is omnipresent but the building in fact achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating. Weaving the Town Hall into its surroundings through openings, a stepped volume and landscaping meant that there’s roof gardens that allow the use of brown roof technology to absorb water and to enhance biodiversity. The team’s sustainability strategy also included promoting healthy living among its users, by placing the lifts to the sides and encouraging people to take the stairs. 

The architects describe the building like a ‘promontory’, and indeed it feels rather elemental, sturdy like a cave, but bright and transparent, inviting the eye to travel across rooms and levels and out towards the green suburban countryside. §

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