Grafton Architects’ LSE Marshall Building is a multifaceted microcosm of the city

The structure’s rhythmic façade establishes a new presence along Lincoln’s Inn Fields, inside the campus of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Feb 23, 2022

A monumental edifice replete with rhythmic louvres, clean lines, and angled massing clad in Portland stone, The Marshall Building at the London School of Economics and Political Science establishes a new presence for the university’s central London campus, bordering the lawns of Lincoln’s Inn Fields to the north. Designed by Dublin-based firm Grafton Architects led by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the institutional building’s recent opening in the United Kingdom is the culmination of a six-year long process that commenced with the selection of the practice’s proposal as the winning entry of an architectural competition held in 2016. Now, fully realised, the building straddles a delicate urban domain of contrasting environments that include the London School of Economics campus to the south, and verdant open fields to its north.

The structure borders Lincoln’s Inn Fields and establishes a new presence for the university’s campus towards its northern edge | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
The structure borders Lincoln’s Inn Fields and establishes a new presence for the university’s campus towards its northern edge Image: Nick Kane

Due to its skirting the edges of these two zones, the structure’s design has been adapted to the geometries of the site, maintaining a somewhat unified expression that continues the visual identity of the institutional architectural setting it is nestled within. Embodying Grafton Architects’ penchant for ‘weighty,’ sculptural buildings that honour the spirit of their context and exude a subtle yet firm monumentality, the lower section of the structure’s front is a datum clad in Portland stone, punctured by angular voids looking on to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This edifice is more open to the sky, employing a system of screens and fins to shade the western side of the building. Conversely, the southern façade design balances entrances, screened terraces, solid gables, and a regular grid of windows with shading elements to create a cohesive visual character and visually connect interior areas to Sheffield Street and John Watkins Plaza within the campus.

The lower section of the building is a datum clad in Portland stone, seen here from Portsmouth Street | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
The lower section of the building is a datum clad in Portland stone, seen here from Portsmouth Street Image: Nick Kane

Containing 18,000 sqm of functional space, the building houses lecture theatres, informal study spaces, academic offices, music rehearsal and arts facilities, squash courts, and a 20m x 35m sports hall in its spatial programming. To accommodate this diversity of functions and the ensuing structural complexity that stemmed from it, the design team devised a tree-like system of beams and columns that address the issue of transferring loads from the smaller spans on the upper levels to increasingly large ones on the ground floor and first floor. In essence, this configuration makes use of outward spreading diagonal branches that direct gravitational forces to the ground and create a stunning example of biomorphic concrete architecture in the process.

  • A regular grid of shading elements and windows ties the visual identity of the development together, along the side facing John Watkins Plaza within the campus | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
    A regular grid of shading elements and windows ties the visual identity of the development together, along the side facing John Watkins Plaza within the campus Image: Nick Kane
  • Entrances, screened terraces, and solid gables also feature along this section of the façade | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
    Entrances, screened terraces, and solid gables also feature along this section of the façade Image: Nick Kane

On this note, the materiality of concrete defines much of the interior design, shaped by the tapering canopies of the branching columns. This is especially visible in the Great Hall on the ground floor. Grafton Architects shares in a press statement, “Under the tree branches at the ground floor a new social space for the university is created - ‘the Great Hall’. Conceived as a covered piazza with a sloping terrazzo floor it allows level access at all three entrances.” A spiralling concrete staircase within the plan acts as a sculptural focal point for the space and is the main avenue for vertical circulation.

The materiality of concrete defines much of the interior design, especially in the vast social space of the Great Hall on the ground floor | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
The materiality of concrete defines much of the interior design, especially in the vast social space of the Great Hall on the ground floor Image: Nick Kane

On the upper levels, lecture halls and classrooms have been placed around an open student commons, which has been described by the architects as a grand ‘piano nobile.’ The gentle curvature of the walls here allows them to weave in and around members of the branching structural system. Finished with sound absorbent timber panelling, these surfaces also integrate benches and desks that facilitate informal study. As a means to maximise natural lighting and ventilation, the layout of the academic offices on the topmost floors rotates the geometry of the site, with three wings that diminish in height from nine storeys at the southern face, to seven on the side overlooking Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Fissures between the blocks form terraces and gardens that act as islands of landscape design amid the concrete and stone forest of the interior.

Lecture halls and classrooms have been arranged around an open student commons | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
Lecture halls and classrooms have been arranged around an open student commons Image: Nick Kane

“A stepped atrium skewers these different worlds together, drawing zenithal light deep into the plan. Stairs and small meeting rooms weave in and out this space, creating opportunities for overlap and exchange,” notes the design team. Narrow concrete fins and acoustic insert panels mediate sound transfer between the levels of this space, which has been conceptualised and implemented in the vein of an external court. Sports facilities in the complex are connected via an external stair in the Great Hall, which descends into the building’s light well and also leads to the bicycle parking zone towards the north of the site. The large volumes of the sports hall and squash court on the lower ground floor are also visually interlinked to the remainder of the layout through the inclusion of this light well.

Branching tree-like beams and columns have been used in the design to address the variation in spans between spaces on different levels | The Marshall Building - London School of Economics and Political Science | Grafton Architects | STIRworld
Branching tree-like beams and columns have been used in the design to address the variation in spans between spaces on different levels Image: Nick Kane

Contemplating their unique accomplishment with this latest addition to the historic campus of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Grafton Architects states: “In summary, this building houses four different worlds stacked vertically and rising from below ground to the sky. The world of sport, civic space, teaching, and research are all volumetrically and structurally interwoven. This is a microcosm of the city, with a multiplicity of uses forming a rich and nourishing environment for university life.”

Project Details

Name: The Marshall Building
Client: London School of Economics and Political Science
Contractor: MACE
Area: 18,000 sqm
Year of Completion: 2022
Architect: Grafton Architects
Structural and Civil Engineering: AKT II
Mechanical, Electrical and Public Health: Chapman BDSP
Fire Safety Engineering: Chapman BDSP
Acoustic Engineer: AAD Applied Acoustic Design
Facade Engineer: Billings Design Associates
Working / Learning Environment: Burwell Deakins Architects
Theatre and Performance: Sound Space Vision
Access and Inclusion: Buro Happold
Transport and Wayfinding: Steer
Security: MFD
Soft Landscaping: Dermot Foley Landscape Architects
Catering Design: Tricon Foodservice Consultants
Design Management Support: Plan A Consultants
Cost & Management: G&T
Project Management: 3PM
Design Management: Schumann Consult

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