Further education colleges are often slated as universities' backward cousins. But if Wilkinson Eyre's City and Islington College refurbishment is anything to go by, they're going forward fast.

One sideways glance at north London's latest vocational college as you drive by banishes any lingering doubt that further education is the poor relation to higher education. What you see from Camden Road is a long sheer wall of translucent glass running parallel to the road. The four-storey glass wall is divided into horizontal go-faster bands, which seem to egg on the traffic that hurtles past. It rises above a row of 3D steel letters that stand a full storey in height and obligingly spell out "City and Islington College".

At one end, the glass wall is shorn off at an acute angle to a sharp frameless edge, revealing that it is really an all but freestanding screen of glass set about one metre in front of the building's front wall proper. Beneath the cut edge, a V-shaped pair of concrete columns stretches upwards and outwards, and behind them a clear-glazed window wall displays the college's main entrance foyer.

The drab 1960s college building, as seen below right, on Camden Road

The drab 1960s college building, as seen below right, on Camden Road. Credit: James Brittain

In combination, the glass screen and fully visible foyer present an image slick enough to turn even a teenager's head. As the architect puts it: "We wanted to create something with ambience, atmosphere and a positive visual appearance, which is really important in attracting students." He is Chris Wilkinson, senior partner at Wilkinson Eyre Architects - the only practice to have twice won the Stirling Prize - which designed the college with Arup as structural and services engineer.

For all its sharp designer image, the building on Camden Road is far from brand new. Built as a technical college in the 1960s, it was run-of-the-mill in design and rundown in fabric, but it has been radically refurbished and slightly extended at a cost of £14m.

"Architecturally, we decided to make everything simple, robust, but attractive," says Wilkinson. This entailed tackling the problems of the old building on several fronts. The ground and first floors, with their standard arrangement of rooms either side of central corridors, have been opened up. Contorted internal circulation has been straightened out. And a four-storey extension has been built at one end to house the reception, restaurant and several larger teaching spaces.

The most dramatic part of the makeover, however, dealt with the blight caused by the noisy polluted main roads on two sides. This has been done in a sustainable, low-energy way: by retaining the original fabric and structure, stripping out the mechanical ventilation system and reverting the building to natural ventilation and daylighting (see "Seen and not heard").

The physical makeover came about in response to a radical reorganisation of the college. City and Islington College is actually a consortium of five colleges that merged in 1992 and transformed themselves into five "centres", each focused on a different specialism. Three of the other centres share two buildings in north London that were newly built a couple of years ago, one of them designed by Wilkinson Eyre. The total development budget of £60m was partly funded by the Learning and Skills Council and partly by selling off property.

The college's specialism at Camden Road is business, arts and technology. These subjects call for large, preferably daylit, studios for design, painting, dance and drama, as well as equally large ICT suites and an electronic library, which have become standard facilities in educational establishments.

In its electronic reincarnation as a learning resource centre, the library is the largest and most used of these specialist educational spaces, as it is adopted by most students as their main study area. At Camden Road, it has been created at the heart of the college by clearing out partitions and corridors on the ground and first floors of the existing front building. It now comprises two large open-plan spaces that stretch the whole depth of the front building.

A freestanding glazed screen has smartened up the drab 1960s college building

A freestanding glazed screen has smartened up the drab 1960s college building. Credit: James Brittain

Daylight and fresh air reach deep inside through clear-glazed windows on either side and through a narrow vertical slot or lightwell that has been cut through the centre of all three floors and the roof above the librarian's desk. On the ground floor, views out to the main road are spiced up by the large steel letters standing just outside.

The building has been extended on all four storeys at one end, where it replaces a mediocre 1960s brick church that blocked the view. The extension presents a sharp, eye-catching view of the college and its main entrance to oncoming traffic is framed only by a scattering of mature trees around the street corner.

Inside the extension, the ground floor rises two storeys in height and houses the entrance foyer on the street side and a cafe-restaurant at the rear. The two spaces are divided by a free-standing "pod". Although the pod is effectively a no-go area of administration offices, it projects a fresh, vibrant image to students and visitors who pass it into the college proper. This derives from its curved corners and horizontal banding in sparkling but low-cost materials. The banding starts at its base with flush stainless steel sheeting, followed by translucent glazing at eye level and finishing with the type of corrugated translucent plastic that would be used in a cheap DIY domestic conservatory.

On the second floor of the extension are large, well-equipped ICT suites, and above them a row of art, design and dance studios. All of these studios gain glare-free daylight from large north-east-facing window walls, while on the top floor additional daylight is channelled into the rear of the deep-plan spaces through rooflights.

Despite the money gained from property disposals at high inner London prices, City and Islington's campus on Camden Road has been refurbished using a design-and-build contract on a low budget laid down by the Learning and Skills Council. The result is understandably basic and semi-industrial in style. Added to that, ceilings have been removed and concrete walls and floor slabs exposed to serve as low-energy heat sinks.

The extension adds 2900 m2 of social, administrative and teaching spaces

The extension adds 2900 m2 of social, administrative and teaching spaces. Credit: James Brittain

But Wilkinson Eyre has been crafty enough to concentrate limited special effects on intensively used areas, such as the semi-transparent pod in the entrance hall. It has also quite simply brightened the place up, partly by admitting more daylight and, at virtually no cost, by splashing vibrant colours such as magenta and scarlet around on plastered internal walls. Even more craftily, the architect has played around with the exciting visual effects offered by modern materials such as glass and plastic. The long glass screen across the front of the building, for instance, is divided into glazed panels that range from clear to semi-obscure, giving a seemingly random pattern of transparency, milky translucency and reflectivity.

What emerges is a building that is strong and rugged yet bright, sharp and forward-looking. It befits its student occupants perfectly. "The feedback is exclusively positive," says John Spindler, the centre's director. "The staff and students love working here."

City and Islington College is proud of being one of the few vocational education institutes to be awarded "beacon" status by the Learning and Skills Council last December. It can now hold up its Camden Road campus as a model of further education refurbishment.

An open-plan learning resource centre replaces a warren of rooms in the existing building

An open-plan learning resource centre replaces a warren of rooms in the existing building. Credit: James Brittain

City and Islington College key points

  • New freestanding glazed screen adds a sharp image, shields road noise and enhances natural ventilation of 1960s college building
  • 1960s shell retained and interiors opened up with improved daylighting and natural ventilation
  • Extension adds prominent entrance foyer, restaurant and up-to-date teaching spaces

Seen but not heard: Blocking out traffic, letting in daylight

An ingenious solution, integrating architecture, structure and services, was devised to improve ventilation, lighting and temperature control in the front four-storey block of the 1960s building. Despite fronting a wide, noisy, polluted trunk road, a mechanical ventilation system installed in the 1980s has been removed, and natural daylighting and ventilation increased. As well as making the building more economic to run and more pleasant to use, this cuts down on use of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases generated.

“We wanted to retain as much of the existing building as possible,” says Greg Chikaher, who led Arup’s combined structure and services team. The first decision, then, was to add something beyond the building to improve its internal environment – a buffer screen along the main frontage facing the trunk road. Although made of nothing more than two 8 mm sheets of glass laminated together with an interlayer of off-white fritting, the buffer screen serves several functions. It gives the college a sharp new image and cuts out noise and pollution. At the same time, it creates a flue in the 950 mm cavity between it and the existing front wall. Large gaps at the base and top of the buffer zone create a natural stack effect to draw large quantities of fresh air up through it.

The combined effect of the buffer screen and its cavity is that the existing pivoted steel windows on the three upper floors can be manually opened just as before to let in fresh air, but all noise and pollution is now excluded. And, because much of the screen is clear-glazed, it still permits views out of the building. Furthermore, on the ground floor below the external glass screen, fixed glazing panels are surmounted by vents packed with sound-deadening material.

A similar screen was erected along the rear of the front block. As this screen faces south, it is made of horizontal louvres of timber, which cut out solar gain on the external wall. The spacing of the louvres varies across the facade to give the patterning a modulated rhythm. Where the spacing widens, the depth of the louvres is increased to produce the same sun-shading effect.

The natural ventilation and lighting system is completed with narrow slots cut in the centre of the upper floor slabs and roof. The vertically aligned slots create another natural stack effect that draws fresh air from the perimeter windows through to the centre of the floors.

Project team
Client City and Islington College
Architect Wilkinson Eyre Architects
Structural and services engineer Arup
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Landscape architect PRP Landscape
Employer’s agent Boyden & Co
Design-and-build contractor William Verry