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Building the new Arcadia

Things are changing in the heart of Greenwich. As the new university building on Stockwell Street starts to take shape, Glyn Brown meets the man behind the project – and finds herself pleasantly surprised ...

As every Greenwich resident will know, there is a vast limestone Lubyanka emerging on Stockwell Street. The building replaces what was a faceless, falling-to-pieces Sixties office block, but it also sits where Greenwich’s immensely popular weekend fleamarket once took place. It will be the newest part of the University of Greenwich. £76 million has been invested to house the campus library, TV studios and, above all, an array of radical academic facilities that are set to transform the image of the university, and possibly of Greenwich itself. There will be public areas, too, including a swanky café and art exhibition spaces.

Having seen only vague projected images and then the cranes and diggers now onsite, I confess I felt as resentful as many others about this invasion of what is a relatively fragile World Heritage Site. So when offered the chance to speak to the man who will head the building, I rolled up my sleeves. But then I started to find out a bit about Neil Spiller, dean of the new School of Architecture, Design and Construction.

A pioneer in architectural research and education, Spiller has been called “visionary”. He also, it transpires, sacked quite a few of the staff when he took his place at Greenwich three years ago, complaining about the abilities of the school and its low profile. It was an uncomfortable shake-up, but now the faculty has an electric vibe and is staking its claim in the avant-garde of design innovation. What manner of man can do this in just three years? More to the point, how could he be stupid enough to take control of a brutalist lump in a sensitive location? Which is where further research was a surprise. Look at the latest projected images of the frontage and you see not a serrated whale but a graceful curved edifice.

Spiller, 52, grew up in Canterbury and studied architecture at Greenwich – then Thames Poly, in Dartford. “I did my final year in commercial practice – built 12,000 square feet of office block fast-track in Basildon.” It was an incentive to go back to academia, this time to teach.

By the early Nineties, he had a reputation. A publisher printing a series of monographs on interesting architects approached him, and he agreed to be the subject of one – if he could pick his own graphic designer. He chose Vaughan Oliver, the surrealist who worked on influential record sleeves for 1990s independent label 4AD (Cocteau Twins, Pixies). The pair fitted because Spiller, too, is fascinated by surrealism, claiming inspiration from Dalí and Duchamp. His happiest moments are spent producing surrealist drawings – the latest is called The Metaphysical City. And what is that? An ideal place in one’s head? Spiller admits to a vision of a “magical, Arcadian place, considering home and landscape in the face of the impact of technology”.

The Bartlett and beyond
In the early 1990s, Spiller joined the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. He was there for 20 years, helping to forge its exhilarating reputation as one of the UK’s leading architecture schools. “It was a wonderful place to be, and still is,” he says. “But I started to feel it was repeating itself.” The challenge had gone. “Whereas here”, he cackles, “it’s a much edgier situation.”

In September 2010, Spiller was head-hunted for Greenwich, which at that time had one of the least impressive reputations of any London architecture school. What made him take the post? The new building. It swept him away. “It’s a game-changer for the architectural dynamics of London and – well, yes – the world.” He sees my surprise.

“The new building will be fantastic,” he promises. “The architect, Henghan Peng, is an expert in World Heritage Sites – and, of course, this will be the only architecture school in the world on a World Heritage Site.” The sheer dynamism of the building fuelled Spiller to create a brand-new architecture school from scratch.

He started with a review of marking procedures, which resulted in 80 per cent of students failing their first year and having to resubmit their portfolios. There followed the notorious staff sackings, and a clutch of new appointments. It was a recession, after all, and students were about to start paying higher fees. To survive and thrive, Greenwich had to be made both attractive and robust. New staff include Vaughan Oliver himself, and daring architectural big hitters like Nic Cler and Simon Herron from the Bartlett. Says Spiller, “I realised when I got here that students weren’t being given an ambitious idea about their future. But they were also not getting the pragmatic understanding that means they could work if you dropped them into the profession right now – they didn’t know, say, how windows fit into walls.” These days, all students spend time in a big international practice – Arup, for example – which means “they can build a building, and they also understand the tough basics: office management, procuring sites, completing architectural documents”.

Spiller has said he wants to make Greenwich an elite institution, earning international respect. And it’s happening. Those students whose portfolios were thrown out? They graduated in summer 2013 – “and they’re one of the best years we’ve seen”. The faculty is attracting far more demanding students; there is a heady frisson.

The new building
All this is happening at suburban Avery Hill in Eltham, but in 2014 everything will shoot up several gears with the move to the more central building we see emerging.
The new building, then. Its honey-coloured façade is made of fossil-filled Jura stone from Bavaria so that it sits sympathetically beside the Portland stone of St Alfege’s. The frontage will restore the traditional curved street line, extending the look and feel of Greenwich Church Street. “A lot of work has gone into those facades and how they tie into the rhythm of the street – how the building turns the corner and how it respects Hawksmoor’s church,” Spiller stresses.

The ground floor is almost completely open to the public, with that airy coffee shop and a series of galleries that will host ongoing exhibitions. Lecture theatres and studios will be available, too – “Local groups can use them, and we could host Question Time, for example.”

But it’s the academic space that creates the most excitement. “The first-floor studio is huge, and it’s beautiful.” Spiller can’t speak quickly enough. “This is where the buzz is going to be, where ideas will be exchanged, where everything will happen – models of buildings going up, students working through the night, if that’s what they want.”

Right at the top, the building’s crowning glory will be its 14 roof gardens. Greenwich is the only university to run the full suite of landscape architecture courses, and up here will be miniature fields, swift boxes and beehives. 

Finally, Spiller’s astonishing Avatar research group will be based here, too, looking into such once-unfathomable issues as bio-cladding using algae. That means buildings with a skin that grows. “Buildings that ameliorate carbon damage, that take the muck out of the air and clean it.”

As convinced as I can be without seeing it, I tell Spiller the building sounds rather like his metaphysical city; another world, perhaps an ideal place. He shrugs. “I guess it is a microcosm of a world I’d like to create, really, which is green, sustainable, ecological, with blue-sky thinking. Not technologically Luddite, but using technologies to help manage some of the world’s problems. And a place where students can get a lifelong learning experience, where they can develop vitality and imagination, the mental dexterity to be leaders of their profession, and above all learn to see the world optimistically.”

If a building can do that, my hat is off to it.

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