The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Imperial College – why we sometimes have to admit defeat

Imperial College’s Southside Halls of Residence are to come down. This is truly terrible news to have to convey. We had done our best to save the building having been tipped off a year ago. Letters requesting our involvement had been sent out almost immediately and we had been gearing up for a strong defensive strategy. Both the south and east sides of Prince’s Gardens are to make way for a large redevelopment scheme. Imperial College is splitting at its seams regarding their student accommodation and they need more buildings.

But the Southside Halls of Residence is listed as one of the flagship buildings of the post-war university development. And yes, like so many of these buildings the structure is of bold exposed concrete. Groundbreaking ideas are being introduced: Le Corbusier is cited for the first time in university architecture. The idea of the street high above pavement level is explored on the third floor. This “walkway in the sky” runs the length of the horizontal slab block in form of a balcony deck giving access to common and private areas, where students can mingle or retreat. Cafes, bars and restaurants can be accessed from ground level and act as a meeting point for the entire student body. Then again there is a courtly bow to the Oxbridge tradition and study bedrooms are clustered in groups around staircases.

This building truly has it all. The graceful open stairways contrasting with the tactility of the shuttered concrete and smooth Columbian pine, plate glass and the views into the leafy green of the square are highly poetic. What a fabulous building.

When Weeks Hall was built on the north side of Prince’s Gardens in 1957 by Sheppard Robson and Partners it was devised as a prototype to attract support and funding for a large scheme to encircle three sides of the square with new student housing. By the time the first stage of the South Block was complete in 1963 unseen but serious economies had been made. Only 10mm of concrete cover the steel reinforcing bars. Today a 40mm to 50mm thickness is standard practice. Big chunks of concrete are now falling off the precast façade. The splendid access balcony has been netted off for safety. The building cannot realistically be retained.

Then there are serious temperature variations within. Due to the spandrel detailing the south façade suffers from uncontrollable solar intake while in the north the building haemorrhages heat. It acts like a cold bridge with down drafts and high levels of condensation making the interior climate even worse.

But this is not the only problem the building faces. The intricacy of circulation via some truly stunning spiral stair-cases mean that exit routes are highly complex. This building is currently operating on the threshold of fire codes not to mention disabled access.

The complexity of the very much task related design has rendered the building almost completely inflexible for any adaptation. Ceiling heights are too low for office use and the internal layout cannot be changed because the floor plates are structural and cannot be punctured while the services are buried within the in situ concrete.

The very particular circumstances in the case of the Southside Halls of Residence mean that this exciting and in so many ways innovative building appears to have reached the end of its lifespan earlier than anyone might have expected. After the thorough yet damning presentation by structural engineers Adams Kara Taylor our Casework Committee sat around the table in disbelief.

We had been expecting to hear a presentation raising issues surrounding the need to expand student accommodation and how the Southside Halls of Residence did not fit the university’s vision of a comprehensive redevelopment of the square: a bid to replace the ugly concrete with glitzy glass. Indeed we did hear some mention about competing for the best and most brilliant students on a worldwide scale and how parents were shocked at the state of the now neglected and crumbling post-war structure. Unspoken remained the issue that new en-suite bedrooms are a popular source of university revenues as conference accommodation during the long summer months (we frequently see this issue raise its greedy head and threaten listed student bedrooms throughout the many other university buildings we deal with).

We had been prepared to argue that aesthetics and financing strategies are not a reason to tear down a Grade II listed building but were confronted with the far more serious reality of a failing structure. Indeed the comprehensive structural report was no smokescreen. A small comfort is that this building is a one-off and post-war listed buildings, although often mis-understood and hence unpopular, will not become open targets. A small trade-off is that the structurally sound Weeks Hall is to be completely refurbished as part of the redevelopment.

Eva Branscome