Rationalising UCL's estate to create a new social hub at the heart of the campus.
Despite the scale of UCL’s estate in Bloomsbury, central London, the University lacked good quality collegiate external space. Through their masterplan, an opportunity was identified to create a new courtyard terrace above an existing service yard to the rear of the Wilkins Building, UCL’s original home, to provide a new high quality piece of public realm for both staff and students. It was also part of the University’s wider strategy to improve accessibility, and in particular, east-west movement across the campus.
The project wasn’t specifically linked to a particular department or school – it was one for the entire University: its students, staff and visitors and needed to be embraced as such. Everyone was keen to be involved and so a steering group was established with stakeholder representatives from its academic departments, administrators, the estates and facilities team and the students themselves. We wanted to create a space for the whole University to celebrate and so we needed to engage with everyone, which we did through a series of workshops during the design process.
The existing service yard, known as the Physics Yard, had become unsightly with single story buildings, skips and containers added over time. It was also overlooked by a number of important University buildings: Wilkins Building to the west, Physics to the north, the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) and Bloomsbury Theatre to the east, and the Donaldson wing to the south.
Our challenge was to connect these disparate elements with one cohesive design solution – all the more problematic considering the Wilkins Building is Grade I listed, designed by the neo-classical architect William Wilkins in the late 18th century. Quite apart from the creation of the new terrace, there were a number of practical issues to be solved: providing good access and maintaining building services to the surrounding buildings.
We developed the idea of enclosing the services yard as an undercroft, allowing the external space above to become the new amenity space for a variety of uses. This is conceived as a contemporary, high quality, stone-paved terrace set within the historic courtyard with a verdant, planted edge. The terrace itself is split level with the lower space serving the new Wilkins Lower Refectory, which will be linked by a new lift and grand staircase. The terrace also creates new routes across the campus, bringing activity where previously there was very little.
With a highly ambitious brief, we were firstly asked to explore a variety of options for the space. As proposals developed we conceived a new ‘fourth façade’ to enclose the space. This wall completes the classical courtyard composition to the east and conceals the plethora of services required for the existing buildings and the new lower refectory. Constructed using Portland stone and designed to classical Georgian proportions, it is a contemporary interpretation of the surrounding historic architecture and helps to tie all the courtyard elements together.
On completion, the new Wilkins Terrace will provide a unique courtyard space of distinctive quality, hidden within an urban estate, providing a backdrop for formal University functions and more informal events and student gatherings – creating an invaluable resource for the entire University community.