We look at how MacCormac Jamieson Prichard took a tiny patch of land squished between buildings at the London School of Economics and turned it into an Italian-style piazza that is now the heart of the campus.
Any college or university with more than one building to its name likes to think

it presides over a campus. For many colleges in city centres, though, the campus is just a pipedream. Until very recently, such was the case with the London School of Economics, which occupies several buildings in a maze of narrow streets off Kingsway in London’s West End. The nearest thing it had to a communal courtyard, square or garden was a tiny triangular patch of tarmac awkwardly wedged between the library and one of the narrow streets. And it didn’t help that its main function was as a student cycle-park.

Without changing its shape or size,

this triangular open space has now been transformed into a proper urban plaza and the social hub of the college. During term time, it positively throbs with students. A great number stride purposefully through the open space between department buildings and the library. Many more are taking things easy in the casual way students do. Some have emerged from their studies for a breath of fresh air; others stand about in groups absorbed in impromptu chats, or lounge around on benches with mobile phones pressed to their ears, or relax with a cigarette, a cup of coffee or a sandwich.

In total, £1.08m has been spent on creating this genuine campus atmosphere. The transformation, by architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, relies on several clever touches. Sets of hardwood benches, a few small tables and a low fence now form a boundary separating the open space from the street. Above this area floats a long, narrow, lightweight canopy. And, perhaps most significantly, this perimeter zone flows seamlessly at one end into a miniature cafe enclosed by clear-glazed walls.

More than anything else, it is this tiny cafe that generates the buzz of the plaza. It spills out into the open space and vice versa, with the effect that the plaza performs the same social role as a piazza in an Italian town. The cafe’s social role is made all the more essential as all of the buildings that encircle the plaza have almost no visual connection with it at ground level.

The cafe gives vitality to the whole area simply because it is spatially part of it rather than a self-contained enclosure within it.

This has been achieved by minimising all boundaries between the cafe enclosure and the rest of the plaza, or removing them altogether. The cafe is enveloped by clear-glazed window walls that rise from floor to ceiling without intermediate glazing bars. On the plaza side, the window wall is made up E

E of large plate-glass panels that can all be pivoted around, so that in warm weather the cafe can open up completely. Overhead, the slatted-timber ceiling and roof of the cafe extend without interruption on one side as

a canopy over the external seating area. Underfoot, the granite pavement flows without steps, threshold or change of materials from the cafe to the open space beneath the canopy. The supporting frame is nothing more obtrusive than an occasional pole of tubular steel and a zig-zagging

tie-beam below the ceiling.

Admittedly, the cafe could not quite get away with being totally transparent. The coffee machines, racks of cakes and sandwiches, and services have been enclosed behind stainless steel cladding panels, and this area has been compacted into a tiny elliptical pod that forms a full-stop at the far end of the canopy.

Outside the cafe, several other elements define and animate the plaza. The canopy and benches that extend from the cafe form a screen between the open space and the adjoining street. It serves as a spatial and functional boundary where students

can sit with their backs to the roadway and face into the intimate civic space and all its social activity.

Elsewhere, the plaza has been furnished with solid granite benches and funnel-shaped concrete tree planters that in themselves seem to grow out of the ground. After dark,

it is all bathed in soft light emitted from recessed pavement light fittings, while the pattern of granite paving slabs is picked

out in lines of glowing blue LED lights in

the joints.

The new plaza has been christened John Watkins Plaza in honour of a former professor and has been anonymously funded by a former student. The tiny cafe with just 40 seats has proved to be such a success that it serves up to 1200 customers a day. And the LSE has earmarked the plaza for staging major events, such as graduation day celebrations.

The whole project is a concise demonstration of how the architects’ special skills at ordering buildings and their internal volumes to achieve social ends can be successfully applied to external spaces, turning them into true civic areas. With society’s requirement for new buildings reaching saturation point, there is an increasing need to sort out the open spaces that have been left between them. And for universities that take pride in their campuses, this need is all the more pressing.