Mikhail Iakovlev explores the aesthetic appeal (or lack thereof) of UCL’s halls
There’s many a daunting thing about starting Uni in the huge and hectic city that is London. Finding the right accommodation is definitely one of them. Luckily, UCL claims to provide accommodation for all the first year students who want it. But is this necessarily a good thing? Apart from the sky-high rent and party-all-night culture at some of the halls (think Ramsay), they aren’t really London’s greatest architectural landmarks either.
To start with, there’s the now infamous New Hall that is the proud holder of the Carbuncle Cup award for Worst Design 2013. Apparently, it is so much of an offence to good-taste, that Oliver Wainwright (Guardian’s architecture and design critic) dedicated a whole article to lambasting this “blunt grey cliff” of a building. What’s more, the building is just as grey and dreary on the inside due to an unfortunate combination of cramped rooms, low ceilings and small windows some of which face directly onto a brick wall. All in all, the rooms deserve the comparison with the Victorian cells at the Pentonville Prison just down the road.
The New Hall on a sunny day. The light let through by the Victorian façade misses the bedroom windows, while the black/grey colour scheme is designed to blend in perfectly with the rainy British weather.
But are all the halls as bad as each other?
The answer is clearly no, or to paraphrase George Orwell “some halls are more equal than others”. For the architecture snobs among you, who are clearly not concerned with tertiary issues such as expense, for its “social side” and location, Ramsay Hall is as good as it gets, (if mid-twentieth century modernism resembling the SPA Green Estate by Bertold Lubetkin is your thing). The building was designed in 1951 by Mark Fry, who also worked together with Le Corbusier on building Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab built in the 1960s, which replaced the old capital that went to Pakistan after its independence. This building’s most striking element is its white balconies and window frames that create a distinct contrast with the rest of the brick interior, a feature both typical of British 1950’s architecture and a nice touch that creates an enhanced sense of light. Another interesting feature is the white columns that support the first floor, which protrudes slightly over the ground floor. And, if you simply want a nice and clean room to dwell, this building underwent an amazing refurbishment and extension by Levitt Bernstein Associates in 2009, winning it the notable Camden Building Excellency Award, (I mean, who hasn’t head of it?). So, how does that compare to New Hall? (The windows are bigger for a start…)
Sadly, apart from some exceptions the architecture of UCL accommodation tends to be somewhat on the utilitarian side. And, I don’t mean utilitarian as Sullivan and Loos meant it, but simply as a boring building that does its job of being a building and not much else. Take Astor College for example, apart from its questionable dark-grey colour scheme (isn’t the weather gloomy enough in London as it is?), it lacks any character whatsoever and bares more than a passing resemblance to a particularly bland office block. Or there’s James Lighthill house, whose architects though inspired to make use of colours outside the grayscale, remains no less characterless. Its design makes it virtually indistinguishable from almost any other building- and makes me wonder whether they haven’t been built according to some secret Soviet-style master plan.
James Lighthill House, and a housing development in Redrow, Woolwich. (I’m not even sure UCL Estates could pick Lighthill out of this line up.)
In any case, the architecture of the accommodation on offer is not that much of a problem, compared to the sky-high rent, (£250 per week, anyone?), and the peculiarly distant location of some of the halls (shoutout to anyone living as far as Victoria). At least for the majority of us, our stay in halls will only last a year, before heading off for pastures new in the form of an ex-LA flat in Camden. The decor may not improve, but the prices certainly do.
Featured image credit: UCL Student Accommodation Services
Images of Ramsay, New Hall & James Lighthill: UCL Student Accommodation Services
All other images: www.primelocation.co.uk