Inspiration

Laidlaw Music Centre

Flanagan Lawrence’s crafted concrete foyer offers a moment of repose between some very noisy spaces at the University of St Andrews’ new music centre, writes Nick Jones

Flanagan Lawrence is well-versed in the interplay between concrete and music. The architect’s previous projects include the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which boasts an exposed concrete and timber auditorium, and the concrete-sprayed Acoustic Shells, a crustaceous bandstand on Littlehampton beach.

“Concrete always plays a huge part in the projects that we do for music,” says practice founder Jason Flanagan. “When you’re dealing with a natural acoustic, you want a very hard, reflective, monolithic surface. Then you’ve got the flexibility to bring in softer materials to deaden and tune the space.”

For the Laidlaw Music Centre at the University of St Andrews, however, it is concrete’s other acoustic strength that is to the fore. This is a building that contains an awful lot of music, often at the same time. Organised as a series of clearly defined boxes, the southern wing contains a recital hall – capable of hosting a 200-strong choir – and percussion studios, while the north end houses smaller practice rooms, office spaces and a top-floor music library. “From the outset, we knew this was going to have a concrete frame,” says Flanagan, “because we needed to keep each space isolated acoustically from its neighbour.” When a building contains both a library and a drum studio, you need solid walls.

If the building’s function dictated the structural material, its unique situation determined the plan and elevations. The Laidlaw Music Centre occupies the western side of St Mary’s quad, one of the oldest parts of the university. It is flanked by sandstone buildings and surrounded by mature specimen trees, many of which were planted by the school of biology more than a century ago. “The building literally fits into the available space between the tree canopies and roots,” says Flanagan. The stone planes of the main facade, meanwhile, were partly conceived as a backdrop to this greenery. “It’s beyond lush. There are times in summer when parts of the building are completely obscured.”

Concrete may act as an acoustic separator, but visually it’s used as a connector, mediating between the trees, the sandstone and the music facilities themselves. A colonnade of slender, polished in-situ columns softens the transition from greenery to stone, while the entrance foyer transposes the trees into the textured grain of boardmarked concrete. “You get this progression from the trees outside to the concrete foyer to the wood-panelled recital hall beyond,” Flanagan says.

The foyer, which slices through the building between its two wings, is largely stripped back to its concrete frame, with exposed soffits, side walls, staircase and footbridges on levels one and two. In addition to its visual qualities, this has a double sustainability benefit, reducing unnecessary finishes and helping to stabilise the temperature in the naturally ventilated circulation areas.

Given the architects’ desire for boardmarking, they were keen to pay close attention to the finish, building two 1.5m x 1m test walls on site. “We had to fight quite hard to get sampling incorporated into the programme,” says Flanagan’s colleague, senior associate director Henrik Lonberg. “But the building doesn’t have a basement where we could test things. And because of the sequencing, the first walls to go up were the visual concrete.”

The team used both faces of the test walls to explore all aspects of the finish, from types of timber and release agents, to the joints between the boards, to the position of tie holes, the corner details, and even the finish of the nails securing the boards to the formwork. “We also did full elevations of the walls, showing board widths, and setting out of joints and tie holes,” says Lonberg. “The one thing we would have liked to have sampled more is the mix, perhaps using GGBS, but we had the constraint of casting in a Scottish winter.”

In the end, a CEMI C32/40 concrete with a superplasticiser was specified, cast against Douglas Fir boards. The texture gives the three-storey wall a monolithic quality, says Flanagan: “It’s very forgiving in terms of concealing day joints, so you get this sense of a continuous, single entity.” The storey-high formwork was reused three times, mostly in areas intended to be covered in plasterboard. However, in some of the office spaces and parts of the library, the concrete texture was so good that the architects decided to leave it exposed anyway. “We didn’t initially specify boardmarked concrete but we got it almost as a bonus,” says Lonberg. “Why put a finish on something that looks beautiful in itself?”

The underside of the half-turn staircase extends from the foyer wall with the same rhythmic precision of boards and joints. The flights above are just 150mm deep and the half-landing projects 2.8m from the wall without the aid of columns. The structure is supported via cast-in channels which connect to starter bars cast into the walls, as well as the two bridges. More surprisingly, the stairs also support the foyer wall; the two had to be cast at the same time as the wall has no other lateral support. This is because the recital hall behind is technically a completely independent building, with separate structure and foundations ensuring complete acoustic isolation: “You could drag a cheesewire between the two,” says Lonberg.

The glazed east and west elevations of the foyer heighten the effect of the boardmarked concrete: “We really like the way the concrete takes the light,” says Flanagan. “The closer you get, the more you see the timber in it, and the similarity to the stone, the trees outside and the timber in the hall. There’s a narrative thread that links the whole piece.”

PROJECT TEAM

Architect Flanagan Lawrence
Structural engineer Will Rudd Davidson
Main contractor Graham Construction
Concrete frame contractor Stephenson Construction

Photos Paul Zanre; Flanagan Lawrence