FASHION STATEMENT

London’s ‘East Bank’ cultural quarter is a legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. At its heart is the new London College of Fashion, complete with its stunning illuminated helical stairway.

Ellen Murphy and Nic Paton report.

This summer sees the return of the Olympics, this time to Paris, from 26 July to 11 August. It is therefore perhaps timely to be considering the ‘legacy’ of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the sporting complex in east London that was home to the 2012 Games when they came to the capital – and that amazing summer of sporting triumph for Team GB.

The new home for UAL’s London College of Fashion at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a key component of the Stratford Waterfront project, enhancing the post-Olympic legacy by establishing an education and culture hub within the park.

Architects Allies and Morrison, serving as master planner for the site, designed the building to fit seamlessly into the ‘terrace’ of new institutional buildings while also reflecting its purpose as a creative and inspirational fashion production facility.

Now occupied by 5,000 students and faculty, the building is one of the largest in the world dedicated to the study and research of fashion and forms a key piece of the cultural quarter of ‘East Bank’, again a vision of the legacy of the 2012 Games.

The building operates like a vertical campus bringing together a diverse range of functions and typologies across 17 floors.

The campus has achieved BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ certification, with engineering firm and lighting designer Buro Happold delivering engineering strategies that achieve a 39% reduction in CO2 emissions against the original brief. The design has also achieved a 19% reduction in embodied carbon over a 60-year lifecycle.

The Allies and Morrison design envisioned a ‘modern workshop’, drawing inspiration from nineteenth-century mill buildings that make up the site. Buro Happold worked as part of an integrated design team (led of course by Allies and Morrison), working on all aspects of the build, including structure, façade and full lighting scheme.

Internally, the Buro Happold structural team devised a range of innovative solutions for the complex spaces radiating from the central atrium and circulation space, known as ‘the Heart’. The ‘Heart Wall’ is a concrete frame consisting of a system of columns and beams that creates a boundary between the Heart and the surrounding workshop spaces. This structure provides primary stability for the building while retaining flexibility across the central core, both in terms of use of space and provision of services.

As well as being arranged around the central Heart, the structural composition of the building is then split between the lower and upper levels, with myriad workshop and practical spaces sitting above expansive, column-free areas, such as the large lecture theatre on the ground floor. There are, then, 10 storeys of dense accommodation over a mainly open-plan ground floor layout.

However, the heart, if you will, of ‘the Heart’ – and the focus for this discussion – is the helical concrete stairway that runs up through the building; as Allies and Morrison describes; ‘unfurling like orange peel to create a dramatic vertical catwalk to see and be seen’.

When it came to the lighting solution for this winding, weaving design, Buro Happold, turned to manufacturer The Light Lab to use its ‘Glowrail’ 3D curved LED illuminated handrail.

The result has been a 430m custom timber LED handrail – the practice’s largest timber LED handrail project to date – and one incorporating helical, curved and straight sections, seamlessly integrating with the sweeping concrete Heart Wall stairs and adjoining black steel staircases.

Myrto Skreta-Krikou, associate lighting designer at Buro Happold, describes how, from the very early stages, the staircase played a central role in the overall design of the space, with the lighting enhancing the geometry of Allies and Morrison design, in the process creating a ‘seamless directionality for the visitors, staff and students’, as she puts it.

She adds: ‘The involvement of The Light Lab early on ensured a good integration of the lighting into the curved handrail and a smooth installation process, despite the challenging geometry and services coordination.

‘The final result can only leave you in awe, especially when you find yourself in the space, experiencing first-hand the playful combination of the curves with the concrete material that the warm light so beautifully highlights. It is one of the designs that our lighting team in Buro Happold is most proud of.’

The exposed concrete helical staircases posed several significant design challenges, notably mastering an unfinished surface.

The Light Lab team successfully addressed this by developing a customised fixing method, following Allies and Morrison’s original design intent to have the bracket pointed straight into the concrete. This is without a cover plate to create seamless integration into the ‘heart stair’.

This bespoke fixing method involved casting a spigot into pre-drilled holes in the concrete, which enabled the bracket to be attached our directly.

As Marcus Cave, production manager at The Light Lab, explains: ‘Fixing to a concrete surface demands complete precision, as there’s no room for touch-ups. Accuracy was key!’ 

The striking concrete stair also posed several significant further design challenges for the team when combined with the requirement of a completely retrospectively wireable system.

The solution, dependent on close coordination between all parties, required custom stainless-steel bracket back-boxes to be cast within the concrete stairs, linking driver locations with the handrail power requirements out on the stair. 

The design imperative – in creating a single, thin homogenous line of light to the underside of the helical handrail – over such large distances was a key challenge, with the longest helical rail measuring more than 40m.

At the same time, it was important to be simultaneously reducing the handrail and bracket structure so as to create the minimalist design, which added further complexity.

Although this is something common to all handrail projects that include long LED runs and minimal driver locations, on this installation all of these imperatives were amplified because of the larger scale and helical forms within the project. 

Finally, as touched on above, for a project of this scope, it was vital for The Light Lab project manager Graeme Laurie to work in close conjunction with both the architect and lighting designer across all aspects of design and installation, to ensure a smooth process and successful delivery.

‘The process was truly collaborative and allowed us to realise our vision for the project without compromising the original design,’ agrees Bruno Marcelino, associate at Allies and Morrison.

‘It’s always very satisfying to see a completed project that closely resembles the original reference visuals but even more so on a project with this level of ambition, scope and finish,’ agrees Graeme in conclusion.

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