39-47 Gordon Square (Birkbeck School of Arts)
- Original design
- Thomas Cubitt, 1830
- Surface Architects, 2007
Designed by Thomas Cubitt, c 1830
Contains Centre for Film and Media, designed by Surface Architects, 2007
Gordon Square was developed as part of the Bedford Estate in Bloomsbury between the early 1820s and 1860. It was the last of the estate’s seven squares to be completed; a sequence that had started 200 years earlier.
The northern streets and squares were largely the work of Thomas Cubitt (1788 – 1855) acting both as speculative developer and master builder under contract to the Duke and his Estate Office. The construction of the Gordon Square terraces was started after Cubitt had completed Tavistock Square, begun by James Burton at the beginning of the century.
The excellent quality of Cubitt’s buildings owes much to his pioneering a system of directly employing all the building trades on a permanent basis from his celebrated workshops on the Gray’s Inn Road. Viewed from the streets however, Gordon Square itself is a rather patchy affair, even discounting post-War rebuilding. Construction took place on a piecemeal basis, affected by the major building depressions of the 1830s and ‘50s, and reflecting considerable shifts in both architectural taste and residential fashion.
The stretch of the eastern terrace that includes 43 – 46, now occupied by Birkbeck’s School of Arts, was completed c.1830 and reflects Cubitt’s approach to the west side of Tavistock Square. The brick and stucco façade features groups of pilasters above band-rusticated stucco, with iron rails to the balconies and at street level. Its ordered simplicity suits the scale of the Georgian square rather better than the larger and more elaborate southern stretch of the terrace, designed in the 1850s and intended to meet the needs of larger families. Birkbeck's buildings are Grade II listed.
The west side of the square is noticeably disparate, containing in addition to its residential terrace the massive Victorian Gothic of Raphael Brandon’s former Catholic Apostolic Church (now the University Church of Christ the King) and T.L.Donaldson’s Neo-Jacobean University Hall (now Dr Williams’s Library).
This architectural diversity illustrates Bloomsbury’s mid-nineteenth-century struggle to be considered a fashionable address given the attractions of Belgravia and Bayswater. Never particularly glamorous, it became infused by academic life and progressively associated with social radicalism. Residential terraces became home to a variety of institutions and, divided into lodging houses and shared dwellings, the background to a shifting social world. At the beginning of the twentieth century the formality of streets and squares belied an emerging reputation for artistic innovation and bohemian living. Bloomsbury became a cultural as well as a geographical enclave.
In 1904, Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian Stephen moved to 46 Gordon Square from Kensington, initiating what Virginia Woolf was later to call ‘the headquarters of Bloomsbury’. When the house was occupied by the Stephen family, there was kitchen /servant accommodation in the basement and a dining room and two studies on the ground floor. A large L-shaped drawing room occupied the first floor and there were bedrooms and individual sitting rooms on the top floors.
The same house later became home to the renowned economist and intellectual John Maynard Keynes and his wife, Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. There is a striking nineteenth century library on the first floor named in honour of Keynes. After decades of use as a teaching facility, the room was refurbished following a gift from Birkbeck alumna, Patsy Hickman.
Paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant have been loaned to Birkbeck by Bell’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, and currently hang in the Keynes Library.
Birkbeck commissioned Surface Architects to rebuild and refurbish a modern extension to the basement and ground floor of the Gordon Square terrace, and parts of the original building. The spaces serve Birkbeck's world-leading research group in Film and Media. At the heart of the project is an 80-seat cinema, designed – unlike traditional university lecture theatres – backwards from the screen.
The project also included a new seminar room and office space.
The most striking elements, however, are the circulation and breakout spaces wrapped around the conic volume of the cinema. Here, the architects, inspired both by cinematic movement and Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness narratives, created an 'otherworldly' space, self-contained, and yet also connected in provocative ways to the existing building and its surroundings.
Using a 3D modelling programme, the architects developed the concept of a 'carved out' circulation space, following the route of a block as if it were tumbling through the solid mass of the building. The result, reinforced by strong contrasting colours and a variety of textures, is angular and dynamic, expressing change, movement, and interiority.
The circulation corridors, bridge and staircase lead to a breakout space onto which the cinema opens. Here a tilted picture window, with the ratio of a cinema screen, is the terminating point of a 'cone of vision' hinted at in the geometries of the space and reinforcing the cinematic identity of the project. The window looks out onto the usually hidden rear spaces of the terrace and the backs of the Georgian terrace facing onto Tavistock Square.
The unusual forms of the space were structured using a prefabricated, self-supporting, cross-laminated timber panel system, finished in a variety of materials.
The project was awarded an RIBA award (London Region) in 2008.
Surface Architects was formed in 2000 by Richard Scott and Andy MacFee. Previously both architects worked for Will Alsop, where MacFee was project architect on the Peckham Library.
Project architect: Nikos Charalambous
Structural engineer: Techniker
Contractor: Vivid Construction