Learning from Leicester

Yuto Fujii

Yuto is an associate and his experience includes the Percy Gee Building, Stamford Court Conference Centre and the Council Chamber at the University of Leicester as well as schools projects at Upton Cross School and Bounds Green School and residential projects including Stonebridge sites 22b and 24c and Canning Town. He is leading the Percy Gee East Wing project, now on site https://www.seh.co.uk/key-projects/percy-gee-east-...

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If buildings and places begin with people, then we as a practice have to get to know those people intimately. We have worked continuously with the University of Leicester for almost two decades, a relationship which has endured numerous changes in personnel and fundamental shifts in government education policy. Our relationship has developed over time as we have introduced improved working processes and embraced new technologies together. However, the foundations of our collaboration have remained the same: achieving a balance between contextual constraints and internal requirements, between conservation and contemporary expression.

We have come to know the university’s estate as well as its people, and in particular the main campus which includes buildings by no less than five RIBA gold medallists, most notably Stirling and Gowan’s 1963 Engineering Building. The architecture of the Engineering Building is an exemplary response to the specifics of a client brief: it makes the most of an unwanted corner of the campus, it achieves the height necessary to house a water tank (used for hydraulic demonstrations one hundred feet below), it provides flexible workshop spaces. And it also has great character, somehow telling a clear story about engineering in its external form and finishes.

Similarly, the projects we have worked on for the university have involved an in-depth appreciation of our clients’ aspirations and the campus context. The work has been at a variety of scales. It includes new-build work and interventions to existing structures, many of them listed, and most have been either within or close to busy, occupied buildings.

The Percy Gee building is at the heart of the main Leicester campus, and is one of several mid-twentieth century buildings which define its character. We first worked on the building ten years ago, transforming its U-shaped western elevation by roofing over the central void to create ‘The Square’ – a new living room for the campus. The resulting students’ union complex has a multitude of uses including shops, meeting rooms and a large music and nightclub venue on the lower two floors.

The linear east wing of the building, however, remained largely unchanged. Thought to be a later extension to the original, it forms one side of Fielding Johnson Square – a former car park redeveloped into a public space in 2016 – and yet has very little presence on this important gathering place. With the university embarking on a series of major redevelopment works, they invited us to revisit the building, to look at how the east wing could be used as decant space but also provide new, consolidated catering and teaching/learning facilities for the campus. Many of those who worked on the earlier project are still with Shepheard Epstein Hunter, and the same is true for the contractor and client – and the depth of knowledge of this team has considerably helped with decision making as the project has progressed. Our task has been to unpick the complex specifics of the university’s brief, giving them the necessary decant spaces as well as a high quality contemporary legacy which conserved some of the character of the original, locally listed building.

The scheme, which went on site in March this year, will effectively turn a two-storey building into a four-storey one. Its current form will be simplified into a more orthogonal volume, with the retained existing fabric wrapped in an envelope of lighter weight materials. While the brick elevations of the east wing have rather an introvert feel, the new facades will have a more extrovert, transparent feel to animate the western side of Fielding Johnson Square. Where possible we are preserving elements of the original building so, for example, the marble-clad columns, brick archways, stone mouldings and cast-iron rainwater pipes will become features to create a contrast between the historic and the contemporary. Inside there will be a large food court at the ground floor and mezzanine levels to complement the catering facilities in the western part of the building and, upstairs, flexible breakout, social learning and work spaces which can be adapted as the decant brief evolves.

We hope that, like the Engineering Building, this latest chapter in the development of the Leicester campus will make the most of a challenging site, deliver space to a complex long-term brief and, perhaps most importantly, convey something of the character and spirit of our clients and its users.