Combining "creativity and stamina" at Old Marylebone Town Hall

16th January 2017

Sheppard Robson Partner Lee Bennett and Associate Partner Gavin Robinson were invited by New London Quarterly (NLQ) to write about the redevelopment of Old Marylebone Town Hall, which will become a major new facility for the London Business School. Their article – published in the Winter 2016/17 issue – focuses on the journey of the project to date and the reasoning and process behind the bold glass and steel structure of the new entrance which faces on to Marylebone Road.  

Like most ambitious projects in Central London, the story of the redevelopment of the London Business School’s campus is a combination of creativity and stamina.

Sheppard Robson won the competition to regenerate London Business School’s main site at Sussex Place in 2006, with the vision to create large teaching and social spaces that the campus lacked in the space between the existing buildings. The brief and design gradually developed over the next four years as a masterplan for the whole site and the scheme – which included a new lecture block and central forum – received planning permission in 2012.

The massive disruption that would be caused to the teaching environment during the redevelopment made it clear that a viable decant solution was critical for the School to remain in operation during the works. Fortuitously, in 2010 Westminster City Council began to seek a suitable partner to redevelop the Grade II-listed Old Marylebone Town Hall (OMTH), which had fallen into disrepair.

Originally a decant option, it quickly became apparent that the Edwardian town hall would create an excellent satellite teaching centre that would complement and enable expansion for London Business School. The plans included six lecture theatres, 32 seminar spaces, a library, offices and a student lounge. The project would be a way to relieve the Sussex Place site through a dispersal of academic functions as well as a way of increasing the School’s footprint in London.

OMTH offered something different to the Nash-designed calm cloisters of Sussex Place. It would give the world famous business school a major new presence firmly rooted in the bustle and pace of Marylebone Road. The building was selected for a permanent outpost because it would, with the right architectural interventions, broadcast the quality and ambition of the organisation, using bold design ideas to announce the arrival of a major new building for London Business School.

The terms of the lease agreement specified that the Westminster Registrar’s Office would be retained within the completed scheme; they will sublet the main entrance of the existing Council House and the ceremonial rooms on the first floor, so that marriages will continue to take place in the iconic building. It was also agreed that the Council would be able to use the largest lecture theatre to hold their monthly public meeting, thus weaving together political, civic and educational services.

As the Registrar would require sole use of the existing, civic steps to the Council House it was necessary to create a new entrance for the School and the gap between the two buildings afforded us this great opportunity. Through negotiation with the WCC Planning department the positioning, height, scale, form and use of materials of the new element were designed to be visually distinct from and subservient to the adjoining landmark listed buildings. In particular it was agreed to set the new frontage back from the Marylebone Road to retain the individuality of the two existing buildings.

When we first looked at the site, the option to create a crisp, elegant and simple glass link was considered to form a dedicated entrance for the School. There was a strong desire to create an integrated structure so that the steel frame would be supported off the two existing buildings.

Analysis of the existing construction of the two buildings was to greatly determine the structural composition of the new glazed link. The two buildings, despite having a uniform classical appearance, are structurally misaligned and a simple diagrid was created to mediate the structural differences by connecting the critical structural points at the centre of each respective pier.

The area between the buildings has been excavated to allow the reception to be set at the lower ground floor level, with a new bridge link connecting the raised ground floor level between the two buildings, which enhances the pure and transparent view through the space. By setting the reception at a lower level allowed the revolving doors, security barriers and associated apparatus to be contained beneath the bridge and obscured from the pavement view.

The introduction of a brave and bold architectural language is consistent with a wider conversation about the dispersal of education estates and the need for satellite buildings to be provocative markers of the institution’s ambition.

No longer a tightly packed nucleus, the way education campuses inhabit our cities is changing. The seemingly inevitable sprawl of departments is a challenge for university’s who want to maintain a collective identity. A way of negotiating this is for buildings that are dispersed around a city to have a distinct identity, enabling buildings to have an urban status outside the boundaries of a main campus.

As we have found with our work with London Business School, this is particularly important when working with existing buildings. Relocating departments from a main campus and placing them in an existing building could result in them having a low visibility, hidden away from view. With London Business School’s purchase of OMTH, the building needed to use the prominent location to its advantage, broadcasting the quality of the organisation.

The opportunity to do this was the link building between the Council House and Annexe, creating a new entrance that did more than mediated the gap but changed the institution’s relationship to the streetscape. Its design is a beacon of a new institution coming to this part of London, a recognisable symbol that meshed with its context in a radical way. Perhaps the spectacle of the steel and glass does not seem immediately contextual but our design is informed by the urban fabric we inherited. This guided and pushed us to create a piece of architecture that spoke of the brave decisions made by our client, whilst presenting a civic and educational emblem to London.