The team at Dublin-based Grafton Architects took on the challenges of university design in their most recent project, a multi-purpose cultural and community hub for Greater London’s Kingston University called Town House.

University buildings are challenging architectural projects, as their design briefs often full of oxymorons. Designers must strive to capture the spirit of age-old institutions, some whose heritage spans hundreds of years while simultaneously catering to an ever-changing student body. Architects must draw a relationship between the building and local community while still preserving the autonomy of the university as an independent entity. And institutions must be open-minded and highly flexible to adopt to a range of user needs, yet not so flexible that its spaces lack clear functionality.

Stressing its namesake, over 50 per cent of Town House’s 9,400-sq-m building is open plan, designed to encourage convivial, flat-hierarchy spaces reminiscent of a town square. The community hub houses the main university library and archive alongside dance studios, theatres, an adaptable learning space and two cafés, offering several forms of cultural programming that cater to a range of interests. Designed to function as the university’s front door as well as a gateway to London’s Kingston upon Thames, Town House proposes the institution as a bridge between two worlds.

The building’s design is based on a matrix of interlocking spaces that together physically and visually unite Town House. This strategy offers many advantages: breaking up long-span rooms into interstitial spaces created structure and gave the opportunity to design intimate spaces for studying and lounging. Promoting the idea of no spatial hierarchy or barriers, a colonnade invites people of all walks of life to walk through and intermingle with one another. On the upper floors, three variously recessed terraces promote circulation and maintain sightlines throughout the otherwise expansive building.

The architects carefully selected their materials to respond to the surrounding site context. A façade made of reconstituted stone echoes the limestone used on the neighbouring Surrey County Council building, while the use of pre-cast concrete in the entrance lobby mimics the exteriors of the surrounding borough. By setting the façade’s glazing back from its colonnades, the porous nature of the six-storey building is expressed from inside out, creating an exterior of multiple views and access points.

Grafton Architects have effectively used architecture as a symbol for what some may claim to be higher education’s purest aspiration: to unite academia with life outside the classroom and thus transform the world.