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Tom Noonan on remodelling the cramped yet fecund spaces of his alma mater, London's Bartlett School of Architecture.

Designing a school for architects is a potentially daunting prospect. All the more daunting when your clients are also your former tutors and peers at The Bartlett School of Architecture - one of the world’s leading academic institutions. But the opportunity of remodelling Wates House has been both exciting and enlightening.

A first-hand insight into the workings, culture and society of The Bartlett has proved invaluable in responding to, and resolving, this challenging brief. As a practice, Hawkins\Brown have an inherent awareness of The Bartlett and its users, with many former students now working in the studio. The vast majority of us also studied architecture so we think we know how it works.

As architects, we can broadly design for two types of users: those who follow the rules that you set out (whether the rules are explicit or not) and those that don’t. We have to assume that the users of Wates House fall into the latter. As the designers of spaces that are to be used by budding and veteran designers, we are aware that the users will be understandably critical. The more we try to influence their behaviour, the more they are likely to resist. Wates House, more than most buildings, is a building for the user, a living vessel, the contents of which will be constantly changed and adapted by the society that it houses.

The more we try to influence their behaviour, the more they are likely to resist.

The unit system, introduced by Peter Cook in 1990 is what, according to those who have experienced it, makes the school so successful. Throughout the project, we have undertaken numerous consultation sessions and surgeries, which have nearly always concluded that the architecture should support the studio unit system (the principles of which extends to research groups, and offices design studios). The vessel as it exists, supports this system through its natural cellularisation. To the visitor, this system may manifest in an anti-social, insular, and enclosed environment., Behind the closed doors, however, the units live and thrive as families, with trust and respect within their groups.

Beyond the rooms, the vessel offers unpredictable opportunities for social interaction and chance encounters: the post-lunch debrief in the stairwell; the illicit chat in the library; the communal graffiti canvas that is the floor. If the unit spaces are the ‘homes’ for the studio ‘families’, then the space around them is the public realm street. Our job, is to ensure that these communal spaces can support the most unpredictable of occupants and foster and encourage the chance encounters that occasionally result in fruitful collaboration.

With the remodeling and extension of Wates House, we aren’t looking to impose a house style or exert design control. We aspire to work with who and what we have found. Our design aims to, nurture and enhance the positive qualities we have discovered, whilst addressing the building’s historic flaws to imbue it with more human and social qualities.

What’s wrong with a meeting in a stairwell? Nothing. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a view..?

We aspire to work with who and what we have found. Our design aims to, nurture and enhance the positive qualities we have discovered...

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