UCD originally conceived this project as a modest 7,000 square metre extension to the existing student centre, which was built in 2001, and called an EU-wide architecture competition to appoint a design team. FKP Architects winning entry revisited the original masterplan for UCD, penned in 1964 by Andrzej Wejchert. His concept would place the new Student Centre project at the centre of a complete sports precinct, surrounded on three sides by playing fields and on the exact site of a fifty metre swimming pool. After this discovery, the design team pursued a programme which was much more than the leisure facility described in the competition brief, additionally adopting the vision of sporting excellence in the original masterplan.
For the design scheme which FKP presented in August 2008, all our research had coalesced into a building which is the new epicentre of social, creative and sporting activity in UCD. Standing on a granite-paved plaza at the intersection of existing sporting, academic and leisure facilities at the westernmost boundary of UCD, adjacent to the iconic water tower, the FKP proposal joined the neighbouring UCD Sport and Student Centres to create a combined 22,000 square metre destination for everyone in UCD. Construction began in earnest in November 2009, after a conclusive cycle of design development led by students, teaching staff, administrative staff and local residents.
The final Student Centre, as now built, reinvigorates the urbanism inherent – but oft ignored - in Wejchert’s original vision. The disparate collection of functions it hosts – swimming pool, debating chamber, gym, seminar room, café among others – function as a city in microcosm, unified under a bird-wing glulam structure which soars outwards to embrace its newly-interconnected neighbours. Each function is expressed as a self-contained volume with its own unique spatial and material character. The resulting voids and spaces in-between make the building a navigable, corridor-less public playground.
The exterior is composed primarily of monochromatic volumes with discreet shots of colour in reference to the materiality and colour of the wider campus. Inside, however, colour comes to the fore. The interior is a commensurately vibrant, playful and fun backdrop to student life, expressed through apposition of strong colours and haptically rich materials. Slips of flamed textured limestone versus large-scale polished black granite; grit-blasted black concrete versus smooth white corian and tiling; exposed services adjacent to dropped white ceilings; white terrazzo versus electric green flooring pursue the vision of vibrancy through diversity.
The architecture is founded on precepts of legibility, commutativity and universal access. The Student Centre can be defined as the ‘sensitive container’ described by Zumthor (1999, p. 13), enriched by the infinite variety of human activity which will take place within. The manifestation of this vision is most perceptible in the absence of corridors in the new building, which have been replaced by interconnected volumes and Gallery Walk, the largest indoor public space on the UCD campus.
A sense of order is maintained through a complex set of visual rhymes, where colours are used at different scales in symmetry across a single space. Visual interconnectedness means that the most conspicuous volumes, (namely the yellow radio pod, red fitness studio and green changing rooms) can be used to easily orient oneself from anywhere in the Student Centre. Subtle distinctions in finish and texture are a recurring theme in marking the transition from one place to the next. This intuitive architectural legibility subconsciously fosters understanding and a welcome sense of ownership.
After nightfall, and the general closure of the Student Centre, the architecture re-emerges anew as a festival of colour across the public squares. Floodlighting dematerialises the glass and steel mesh façade to bring the large coloured volumes to prominence as a fun, charged backdrop to the nightlife of the campus: evening training sessions, students leaving the Clubhouse Bar, media teams working late and other activities yet to occur.
As UCD itself grows ever more diverse and diversified, so too must its facilities. Conceived as UCD reflects on 50 years at Belfield, and plans for its future there, the Student Centre embodies this paradigm shift in the institution’s history: Fitzgerald Kavanagh Partners’ building is the legacy of a period of very high achievement, and the means by which UCD can continue to lead the pack far into the future.
(All photos by Donal Murphy; courtesy of Fitzgerald Kavanagh and Partners)