UCL School of Management, designed by Levitt Bernstein

It’s been a number of years since we’ve visited the centerpiece of Canary Wharf that is One Canada Square. Our previous engagement was with global giant Bank of New York Mellon. Today we’re going to see a very different resident – UCL’s School of Management.

Not only is it going to be fascinating to compare and contrast the worlds of finance and education, it’s also going to be incredibly interesting to see how far the world of corporate design has come in those past few years.

Founded in 1826 in the heart of London, UCL was the first university in England to welcome students of any class, religion, and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men. Today, it is one of London’s leading multidisciplinary universities, with approximately 11,000 staff and 38,000 students from 150 different countries.

UCL’s School of Management offers undergraduate, graduate and executive programmes in management, technology entrepreneurship, information management for business, management science and business analytics. Its programmes incorporate learning activities and industrial experiences that will help develop commercial competencies, internal organisational management skills, and a high degree of creativity, preparing scientists, engineers, physicians, and other innovators for leadership roles in the next generation of technology-intensive organisations, as well as in finance and consulting firms.

When UCL’s School of Management decided to consolidate and relocate its facilities, it looked first to its home on the Bloomsbury campus. The university estates department allocated another building on its estate – 66-72 Gower Street – and as one of the university’s framework architects, Levitt Bernstein was briefed to work up some initial concepts for the space.

However, it quickly became apparent that this building would not meet the school’s aspirations in terms of creating a cutting edge learning environment and compete on the international market. The idea of moving the school to Canary Wharf was suggested – and considering the excellent business links within the area, a deal was quickly struck for the 38th floor of One Canada Square.

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Tom Greaves, Associate Director at Levitt Bernstein, can tell us more. ‘Rather curiously, the School of Management was part of the Engineering Faculty, and as such found themselves in a traditional research building with workshops, labs and write-up spaces – meaning students and staff weren’t having any opportunities to interact or collaborate. Instead, the blank canvas at Canary Wharf meant we could create something really bespoke for the School that would meet all of their requirements.

Levitt Bernstein’s brief swiftly changed from providing departmental facilities to creating a whole university satellite, complete with academic, administrative and social spaces.

As per other management schools (including the University of Warwick, which has taken occupation in the Shard), the School of Management is incredibly ambitious and competitive. ‘The New York Stock Exchange was here previously,’ Tom explains. ‘The School’s Director wanted to try to bring the school into the financial district rather than keep it in the more academic world.’

With this new location came the opportunity to express a more distinct identity – an important step in establishing its global profile and attracting the best academic and business talent – and so Levitt Bernstein worked closely with brand consultants Studio Blackburn throughout the design process.

The school feels a particular synergy with the wider Canary Wharf community – its business focus providing an inspiration and opportunity for students to engage with the corporate world during their education. Moreover, the floor above the new UCL School of Management is a designated small business accelerator, set up by the Canary Wharf Group to support start-up enterprises. With this is mind, Tom and the team needed to create a space where business meets academia – breaking down corporate norms to provide a stimulating learning environment. The School’s Director, Bert De Reyck, drew up a bespoke brief and Levitt Bernstein worked closely with his team and UCL’s estates department to establish their priorities and expectations.

The design concept was inspired by an early conversation with the client group, where the idea of dividing the space into distinct zones serving the different aspects of the school’s work was discussed. These were nicknamed ‘villages’; offices and meeting spaces arranged around a central shared space that became known as the ‘village green’.

Each village is allocated to a particular teaching or research group, and those with commonalities are located next to each other with further shared breakout spaces. The circulation between the villages is key – it is as much a social space as a route connecting the villages. The team wanted to encourage interaction at every opportunity to create a truly convivial environment, which manifested itself through a deliberate breaking of the geometry to create a number of incidental and informal spaces.

The six villages are distributed around the edge of the floorplate, and rather than being delineated by walls, each is defined by a particular colour and texture through the lighting, flooring and graphics to create sub-identities for each of the groups and assist with orientation. The entrances to the villages are also open, allowing glimpses into the spaces and spectacular views of the London skyline beyond. Smart shared workspaces are located in prime spots (with the best views) to encourage people out of their offices.

‘If you look at different floors here, there is a central core and then open plan space and cellularised offices next to the windows,’ Tom reveals. ‘We’ve tried to reverse that, just to change the feel from something quite corporate to something more exciting.

‘Here, we have the core and a number of spaces that hug the core – shared spaces such as teapoints and the boardroom. From there we’ve developed this idea where the groups – villages – can work together and, depending on the hierarchy, people get either an office or space out in the shared workspace. What we’ve tried to do here is make sure that the shared workspace is actually the instinctively more attractive space, with the best views. We’ve looked to break that hierarchy without obviously spelling it out to everyone.

‘There’s also informal circulation routes and the broken geometry allows people to stop and meet and share ideas without being in other people’s way.

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‘These lead you into the village – and each one of these has a subtle branding difference, whether that is through the colour or the definition on the floor or the wall. The villages are also linked by small ‘lanes’ on the outside, which provide further opportunities for interaction and meeting. All of this is designed to get people to collaborate – for accidental interactions – and to break down those typical barriers. Rather than this being a case of cramming people in, this is more a case of finding ways of not making people feel like they are floating between spaces. So we’ve broken down the spaces and created a series of clusters.

‘I should say that the school’s management has been extremely proactive and very good in embracing all of this.’

A hub space welcomes students on arrival from the lifts and features an informal seating area to create a meeting place away from the villages. Two impressive ‘Harvard-style’ lecture theatres sit either side of this and their intimate horseshoe format and tiered seating encourages interaction and discussion. Breakout niches are also integrated into the window bays at the rear of the seating to allow smaller group working. Throughout, materials, colour and texture have been used to clearly define space and to a level of sophistication that reflects the school’s aspirations.

‘UCL is establishing a presence in other parts of east London,’ Tom tells us as we look out over the capital from our lofty position here on the 38th floor. ‘So the School of Management being in Canary Wharf sits neatly within this narrative and places it at the heart of a wider academic community.’

Essentials:

Client
School of Management, UCL

Architect
Levitt Bernstein

Project Manager
MACE

QS
Aecom

Brand Consultant
Studio Blackburn

M&E Consultant
Buro Happold

Main Contractor
Canary Wharf Contractors Ltd

Furniture
Vitra, Senator

Furniture Supply
Hunters Contracts

Flooring
Interface, Christy, Forbo