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Social learning is driving the evolution of a new kind of university building that places flexibility, choice, care and connectivity at the heart of the student experience. Veronica Simpson explores Hawkins\Brown’s prototypes.

Hawkins\Brown specialises in creating academic buildings that foster new social and intellectual connections, uniting previously disparate departments and disciplines in one vibrant, cross-fertilising container.

In the design of LSBU’s Student Centre and, prior to that, The Hub at Coventry University, the practice has been exploring a new kind of space: a central resource geared towards servicing students physical, social, economic learning – even spiritual requirements.

It all started with a student population, at Coventry University, which had evolved to be predominantly home-based, often Muslim and therefore uninterested in using bars and pubs. Both around the university and in Coventry City Centre itself there was a real paucity of opportunities for the kind of social learning that students now prefer: plugged in to their laptop or tablet – their one-stop internet-empowered resource for lectures, journal articles, even books, and assignments. Collaborating in pairs or groups, or simply working individually but companionably alongside their peers.

So when discussions began with Hawins\Brown about what form Coventry’s new ‘Student Enterprise Building’ (the Hub’s initial incarnation) might take, an idea emerged of creating a kind of home from home, a ‘living room’ that combines flexible learning and social spaces, while catering for all other student needs 24/7: a diverse food offer, a bar and events venue, a multi-faith centre, a health centre and an employment agency. It’s the essence of modern university pastoral care, all in one shiny, glazed, strangely shaped box.

Two years on, it has become a miniature, busy Metropolis, its 9000sqm buzzing with activity especially around the open-plan social learning areas. Here there are ‘booths’ for one to one co-working or tutoring; ‘cocoons’ for quiet, focused study; ‘hives’ for independent and guided learning; the ‘kitchen table’ for informal crowd learning, debates and presentations; a ‘nest’ filled with beanbags for informal social groups of 15 or 16; and the ‘drive-thru’, for task-based checking in or out such as collecting or dropping off assignments. These learning configurations – identified through Hawkins\Brown’s own research combined with the evolutionary workplace and insights of DEGW– are articulated in bespoke pieces of overscaled furniture made of resin and laminated plywood, coloured bright yellow or orange, which are scattered across the floor, like funky dodgem cars.

There is quite a different feel at London South Bank University, a university with a more mature population; the average age is 27, and many students are combining their studies with work, or with families, from bases far from the university itself. This is a smaller, more ‘corporate’ version of the Hub. Yet within its compact 200sqm, it manages to combine student services with student union facilities, including a bar and venue, a lounge and café area, an employment ‘gym’, meeting rooms and offices, while improving links through to adjacent facilities. It has been created from a first floor refectory in an existing 70s building with a new build ground floor added below, where once there was a services car park.

The new glazed ground floor elevation leads to an entrance that is all slick industrial sophistication, like a cross between an airport terminal and a continental boutique hotel. Polished concrete flooring and walnut-veneer counters contrast with exposed, white-painted concrete ceilings and structural pillars.

For all the grown-up gloss, there’s a playfulness both inside and outside the building that invites engagement: the exterior glazing is gently canted, its perimeter line waltzing towards the entrance door and in rhythm with the diagonal slashes of lighting embedded in Rob Beswick’s landscaped forecourt. The staircase void is illuminated with big, sculptural pendant lights echoing the vertical lines of an undulating screen of thin, steamed beech rods running along the walls of the lobby.

Upstairs a generous, open plan lounge and café offers large, wooden ‘kitchen’ tables and stools in a central food service area, for eating, meeting or working in. At the back is a casual lounge area, used for ‘pop-up’ events and group or solo work. Tucked down one side is a chain of handsome wooden booths, with seating upholstered in grey leatherette. These are popular with both students and staff for working, collaborating and socializing - or even for catching up on some vital sleep! The furniture is bespoke, predominantly wood, generously scaled and durable, its domestic qualities enhanced by bold graphic patterning - inspired by the paintings of LSBU’s most famous former student, the artist alumnus David Bomberg.

The narrative of these buildings is writ large: co-operation, generous cohabitation, flexibility and adaptation to any kind of learning or social configuration. But through strengthening links between these hubs and the departments around them, they also encourage a ‘reach and reciprocity’ choreography, identified by Richard Ogle, author of ‘Smart World’, as the best way to reinforce learning. Core knowledge, he says, must be supplemented via constant forays, returning ‘home’ each time to integrate what has been discovered.

Through designing buildings that inspire dwelling and consolidation, collaboration and connectivity, Hawkins\Brown may have invented the ultimate architectural learning tool for the 21st century student

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