What do our buildings say about us?

04 May 2021

By Neil Grey

narrow street in london

It’s easy to forget that today’s heritage buildings were once brand-new expressions of the very latest in technology and cutting-edge construction science. But time moves on, our needs change and technology evolves, so we need to ask ourselves what place they have now, when the world for which they were designed has passed into history. We’re pretty good at adapting older buildings to serve new needs but there will always be some spatial or structural limits that ultimately constrain what can be achieved. A presumption in favour of re-purposing older buildings is increasingly an ethical duty rather than an economic choice because of the importance we place on sustainability and energy performance today. Neither exerted much of a priority in the minds of our forefathers.

For every successful transformation, every Tate Modern, there are probably a hundred older buildings which sit at the crossroads of a decision to refurbish or demolish and redevelop. Weighing cost against value is certainly the predominant consideration here, even where demolition or physical alteration is prevented by listing. But other factors shouldn’t be overlooked. For the Knowledge Sector, a proportion of which already occupies legacy heritage buildings, the way buildings can help express the values of the people that occupy them can be a fundamental attraction, especially as a contribution to creating a strong brand around the special areas of science or knowledge represented by individual organisations. It’s as simple as this - buildings can be powerful expressions of their occupants.

We make buildings to meet our needs functionally and aesthetically, but they always end up saying something profound about us and our values, either subconsciously or deliberately by design. Churches reach for heaven, law courts speak in the weighty language of justice, government offices express the power and permanence of the state. So, what do older buildings say that new buildings sometimes struggle to articulate so eloquently? For the Knowledge Sector older buildings can be powerful advocates of some of their core values. History and tradition for example. Stability, rationality, permanence, and longevity too.

It would be a mistake to see the Knowledge Sector as backward looking though. Given what it does, it’s more often at the cutting edge of discovery and innovation in science, medicine and knowledge. Arguably its archetypal building should be equally future looking, experimental and bristling with new technology and highly sustainable features. The reality is that most long established Knowledge Sector organisations endeavour to balance these opposites; wanting to express an illustrious history of achievement based on working at the highest level of professional excellence, but at the same time seeking to display a radical pioneering outlook focussed on opening new territory for exploration and discovery.

Two of our recent projects illustrate how this internal dialogue finds expression in a built form. The Royal College of Pathologists new headquarters in Aldgate designed by Bennetts Associates uses a range of traditional materials to create a contemporary setting for the College’s extensive library, together with the objects and artwork that map its long history. The finished building juxtaposes the old with the new in a satisfying and harmonious way. In contrast, the new Liverpool home of the Royal College of Physicians is The Spine, which will be one of the healthiest buildings in the world when it opens in 2021. It’s future-looking credentials are expressed throughout, perhaps most visibly in the striking, cutting edge façade design, which uses an applied ceramic frit made with 23 million unique Voronoi polygons that reflect the natural patterns of human skin.

As project managers we’re often in the room with Knowledge Sector occupiers when they consider their property options; stay or go, adapt or redevelop, traditional or contemporary, more space or less. Inevitably, an important element of this analysis is self-discovery because property projects are often a catalyst for organisations to reflect on how they see themselves and how they want to present themselves to the world at large. It’s an iterative process, based more around the idea that what is hard to describe or articulate is easier to recognise when it’s shown to you. There are no wrong answers. The available building stock offers an almost infinite range of options from heritage right through to the yet to be built or imagined. Sadly, it’s usually more prosaic factors like budget, available opportunities and location that sharply limit choice.

Older buildings are often a source of richer opportunities if only because Knowledge Sector organisations have an occupational template that’s different compared with regular corporate occupiers, so they may be able to consider buildings others can’t. Whether it’s old or new, the capacity of every building to express the ethos and the values of the organisations that occupy them is more powerful than you might think. Internally this clear manifestation of values can be a rallying point for the organisation too.

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