Construction of the Sackler Centre: Interview with Christopher Bagot of Softroom
Christopher Bagot, architect for The Sackler Centre at the V&A:
I am Christopher Bagot, I'm a Director of Softroom. Softroom were the architects for the Education Centre, we are a small practice of around 12 people based on London’s Oxford Street. We have developed our practice based on a wide range of projects from exhibition interiors to aircraft to housing.
We were chosen by the V&A to do this project based on a competitive process where we were one of five architects asked to produce designs based on an outline brief of a site on the site of the Henry Cole Wing. It was always going to be a challenge to fill the functions of an education centre into a building like this and I think that what stood out for the V&A was that we were prepared to take quite a radical approach as to how we would alter this building to suit this new purpose.
The design brief incorporated a 140 seat auditorium, seven other rooms, artists studios, lunch rooms, design studios and all the ancillary spaces. It was important to us that the building was a welcoming place, it had to be accessible for all from a physical point of view but also from an emotional point of view, you had to feel comfortable here so we spent a lot of time looking at different types of spaces that people were used to creating, so artists studios were a big inspiration for us. We wanted it to feel like a space that we could occupy in a casual and flexible way that you would be inspired to create work within it.
It was always interesting for this project that the site for it was the Henry Cole Wing. The V&A was built on the foundation of education and the building that we are in was originally designed as the naval school of architecture. Over the course of 100 years it was used for a lot of different uses and most recently it ended up as a café and exhibition space for the V&A and in a way we are now returning the lower two floors of this building to its original purpose. I think the main architectural intervention in the project is the double height space with the staircase linking the two floors but the other key design decision was putting the auditorium inside what used to be called the Beckman Room and the auditorium exists as an independent free standing structure which you can see, if you imagine looking down on this space you will see the auditorium existing as a box within the box, and that allowed us to keep an appreciation of the original scale of the architecture of the room but also to create a completely new facility.
The key challenge with this building is to turn quite a dark old Victorian space with lots of cellular rooms into a bright modern environment that will be inspiring for people to come and learn in, so the key challenge really was to bring natural light into the building and to open up the views between the different spaces. Initially the first floor of this building was pretty much a lost world, you didn’t know it was there because you only had the staircase in the corner so from an early stage we knew we wanted to make a big hole in the first floor to allow views upstairs and to allow natural light into the basement.
We were doing quite a lot of serious work in the existing and everything had to be carried in through the window so we got some fairly big bits of steel in order to hold up that auditorium and they needed to be brought in in sections and assembled and then lifted into space. All of the concrete had to be pumped from outside into the building and generally we were working in confined spaces. One of the key parts of the project is the staircase and we knew that for the staircase to work spatially and what we needed it to do, concrete was really the only material that made sense but working with concrete comes with its own challenges most particularly that you have to work with the concrete in a set amount of time, so once the form work is all built you have to pour the concrete in a particularly ordered way and this presents many challenges for a builder not least when they are working in a small space and there is a limited number of people who can do something which is quite complicated.
The building is made of masonry construction which means where you have structure, you have quite large amounts of solid structure so we have to introduce quite a lot of quite radical alterations in order to open up the building so there is quite a lot of steel work hidden behind some of the new openings which really transformed the way you can use the space, allowed you to move through it a lot more freely but they did require a lot of work and a lot of time was spent in the early stages of the project doing that quite major surgery on the existing building.
It was important that the design was as accessible to as many people as possible and this was a challenge in a building which was designed when these concerns didn’t really exist in the same way as they do now so a lot of effort went into achieving wheelchair access to all the different spaces on the upper floors, to the extent that we actually removed entire sections of flooring and installed ramped concrete floor to link the level we are on now to the residency studios and built new ramps so that you can get access into the seminar rooms as well.
We have a concrete floor which is designed to be a flexible hard wearing adaptable finish. We were always looking to use natural materials where we could so timber features quite strongly in the design to bring warmth to the interior. The other key thing was always that we wanted there to be transparency so a lot of glass has been used throughout the centre and the challenge there was to create transparent walls that didn’t allow sound to pass through them so we have very technical double glazed glass walls with large air gaps.
It is interesting that the Centre appears that there is quite a lot of colour but when you analyse it, almost all of the colour in the Centre is in free standing objects. It is mainly the furniture that brings the colour to the Sackler Centre and this is deliberate because we knew that the infrastructure is going to be here for longer, the colour is something that could change. We thought that green was a good colour for an educating environment, it’s a colour which is seen a lot in nature and it generally feels like a stimulating learning colour.
We are very happy with the end result and the emotional reaction that people say that they get as they walk into this main space is an uplifting feeling and I think that is the most you can wish to achieve with a project like this.