… so much as a giant titanium egg, which Napier University has cooked up to attract students away from Edinburgh’s other universities – with a little help from Building Design Partnership.

Not an ivory tower
Not an ivory tower

Edinburgh’s three colleges of higher eduction have long grappled with each other for students. Up until now the Universities of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt have enjoyed the advantage of age and tradition.

Now they are being challenged by Napier, the young pretender, which has just deployed the sensational 200-seat lecture theatre you can see pictured here.

“These buildings are marketing tools,” says John McManus, director of multidisciplinary practice Building Design Partnership, which came up with the building. “It’s easy to get students to come to Edinburgh, but once they get here, why would they go to Napier? They were very keen to have a building as a show-stopper – something potential students would remember when they first visited the university.”

BDP has certainly given Napier a fighting chance.

The lecture theatre is the centrepiece of a £25m redevelopment of its business school, which sits under the imposing granite crag of Craiglockhart. A giant semicircle has been scooped out of a rather ordinary looking atrium within the redevelopment. Sitting within this is the titanium-clad, egg-shaped lecture theatre supported on two angled stilts. This dramatic intervention is reminiscent of London Metropolitan University’s new “shop window” on the Holloway Road, out of which tumble Daniel Libeskind’s fractured shapes.

The egg sits in the middle of a new extension attached to the left side of a Victorian building. On the far left of the redevelopment is a new teaching block and in the middle is the atrium, which acts as a circulation space and social area for students. The atrium is linked to the existing building, which houses offices for university staff. At the rear of the atrium is a learning resource centre and contained within the atrium is a second, somewhat less exciting, lecture theatre with seating for 400 students.

McManus says the extension replaces a jumble of 1960s buildings and its function should be very clear. “The idea is to be immediately legible: teaching in the middle, support to the right, and the books are all around you,” he says.

A bridge at first-floor level connects the main atrium to the egg. Crossing the bridge and entering the egg feels eerily like entering a space ship, a feeling that is intensified once inside. The end of the egg has been sliced off and clad in a wall of glass, revealing spectacular views north to the Firth of Forth and the mountains beyond, and giving the sense that you are hovering over the city. “There’s a theatricality to it,” says McManus. “If you arrive by car you will come into the extension and cross the bridge and at no point do you know there is this fantastic view waiting for you.”

In front of the glazing is a raked floor, and wrapped around the seating is the wooden shell of the egg.

“We have created as tight an envelope as possible round the students, so the building tends to be the shape it is. Plus, there is lineage in this practice,” McManus says, referring to the Glasgow Science Centre, another titanium-clad ovoidal building designed by BDP.

The egg is raised up on two concrete stilts, which lift it to first-floor level. This was necessary for two reasons: to maximise the views over Edinburgh and to improve circulation. Were both lecture theatres to empty at the same time, there could be up to 600 people jammed into the atrium. However, by the time students from the egg have crossed the bridge and negotiated a set of steps to get down to the ground floor, the students from the 400-seat lecture theatre should have dispersed.

BDP was also responsible for engineering the egg-shaped hall. “Making it work structurally was a real challenge – it looks complicated and it was complicated,” says Jean Pierre Cartz, structural engineer at BDP. The egg is structurally independent, although the atrium wraps protectively around it. The angled concrete stilts support a concrete table top that cantilevers beyond the legs on all four sides and supports the shell structure. This table top is raked steeply in the middle to provide the correct angle for the seating inside the building.

Initially BDP considered supporting the superstructure with a series of trusses, which would have been faceted to create the curve. The roof would have been fixed to the upper members of the trusses and the ceiling to the lower members. The problem was that this would have taken up a lot of space in a small building.

The solution was to make the skin of the building double as the structure. This was a logical step for the practice as it had experience with these types of solutions and there were several important benefits. “You gain volume and the timber becomes an important visual element,” says Cartz. It was cheaper, too.

The shell consists of a timber structural frame arranged as a series of hoops running around the lecture theatre. These are joined together diagonally by secondary ribs with the whole arrangement covered by curved plywood that further contributes to the shell’s structural integrity. This is coated with a single-ply waterproof membrane and finally the rainscreen of titanium shingles.

Internally, thermal and acoustic insulation was placed on the interior of the frame between the structural ribs. This was covered with triangulated pieces of ply fitted within the frame. The frame adds considerable visual interest to the finished interior, with the warmth of the timber providing a contrast to the cool blue upholstery of the seats.

The angled concrete legs have a tough job to do. The centre of gravity of the egg is at the rear of the legs, so structurally it wants to topple over backwards into the atrium. The legs are further compromised by the need to incorporate large oval-shaped holes within them. These accommodate emergency stairs that spiral up through the legs into the building’s underbelly. Considerable amounts of reinforcement were needed in the vicinity of the holes to keep the building stable.

Despite the fact that the original contractor, Melville Dundas, went bust halfway through the contract, the building has opened on time for the new academic year. The egg may well help Napier to steal a march in Edinburgh’s university wars but the big question remains: will the university’s lectures be sufficiently compelling to distract the students from the stunning architecture and the views beyond?