People, Places, Things
Sam Jacob Studio for architecture and design
is a collaborative practice that makes
buildings, places, strategies and objects.

+44 207 251 6735
[email protected]

University of Kent

School of Architecture, Design and Planning

SJS have completed the refurbishment of new studios, providing teaching spaces for the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

The school is part of the University of Kent campus opened in 1965 and designed by William Holford as a soft-brutalist set of buildings on landscaped parkland at the top of a hill overlooking Canterbury. The brick and concrete Marlowe building originally housed the university’s physics department, with cellular offices on the ground floor and a top lit lab space on the first.

The design process began with extensive consultation with faculty and students. These sessions explored a variety of spatial and organisational configurations. They looked at ways of balancing distinct subject-specific, year, and unit spaces, while also providing flexibility to allow working in different ways, transformation for talks, reviews and exhibitions.

Design strategies were drawn from studies of art, design and architecture schools and studios, from the Bauhaus, through Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building to Warhol’s factory. These were used to help identify how creative spaces are not only designed but inhabited; or more precisely what happens between the logic of architecture and the happenstance of creative working. This approach aimed to create a frame with enough presence and character to allow the creativity and imagination of the school to play out; a design that could help develop and reframe what studio culture could be.

A label on the original architectural drawings for the physics labs read ‘Permanent Experiment’. This phrase became the mantra for the project: to create spaces that could sustain change, testing and multiple possibilities.

The existing building acted as the starting point. First by stripping the building back, both spatially and materially; exposing the concrete ceiling, revealing engineering and services, and opening up the spaces.  Then working with attention to the building’s fundamental spatial logic; the design builds as minimally as possible. On the ground floor, just one wall was added, and on the first floor, two. This approach of ‘building less’ bakes in long term flexibility as to how the school might develop over time, in terms of student numbers and pedagogical approach.

At the same time, the walls themselves are intensified as spatial devices. Large sliding doors with giant polycarbonate portholes can tune in or tune out adjacent spaces.  Pivoted walls allow for alternative arrangements, Benches/model plinths, storage draws, and integrated lighting mean the walls remain active in configuring the spatial organisation.

Pinup walls, a mainstay even now, of architectural education, used two colours of board, with a structuring graphic order created by cutting panels diagonally corner to corner. A shelf runs above the standard board height, backed by mirror dissolving spatial orientation. The shelf also acts as a fixing point for angle-poise lamps that can be used to spotlight work on the walls.

A secondary level of organisation is provided by movable storage units. These customise standard warehouse racking units, with perforated pinup boards sandwiched with tinted acrylic sheet to one side, and inserted cabinets to the other, Currency used to divide unit spaces these elements could later shift into alternate arrangements.

The third organisation is provided by furniture. In part reusing the schools existing stock, with new trestle tables formed using doors reclaimed from the strip out – the holes cut for locks and vision panels filled with yellow laminate. Drawing boards, easels and large screens equip studios with an array of different modes of working.

Within this framework are a series of explicit architectural references. The colour scheme is taken from Le Corbusier’s 1959 paint system. A series of columns, used to define thresholds, act as 1:1 models of, variously, Canterbury Cathedral, Brancusi and James Stirling, like a library of other architectures inhabiting the school.

To combat overheating, a rainbow spectrum of coloured blinds run around the ground floor, A series of suspended perforated boards can be moved along the same perimeter, adding both additional pinup space, and a layering of privacy between interior and exterior. These also serve to animate the external appearance of the building, revealing aspects of its inhabitation. Variations of colour and light contrast with the repetitive order of the existing building.

This is a project that reveals the intrinsic qualities of the 60s building (materials, space, light), while also contrasting a more fluid contemporary character. It recognises both the practicalities of architectural education and the importance of the social-creative life of a school. It is an architecture that invites inhabitation rather than imposing order; that recognises character, wit and delight as part of an essential role of architecture. And most of all, remains open, allowing multiple ideas of what architecture and design could be: A space that embraces the different ways creative practice can be taught, learned, shared, and discussed.


Client Testimony: Chloe Street Tarbatt, Head of School

SJS has been a real delight to work with on this project. The richness and depth of thinking that has gone into this modest refurbishment is extraordinary, and we feel immensely privileged to have had the input of such a talented designer. The design has been successful on so many levels; from the strategic configuration to the detailed elements, and Sam and his project team successfully navigated complex consultations with staff and students to achieve this. On the foot of these new attractive and functional studio environments, we have been delighted to witness our studio culture grow and transform over the past year into the kind of student-based community of practice that allows ideas to cross-disseminate, enables critical peer-to-peer support, and has ignited a whole new level of ambition… we hope to expand this successful SJS studio design across other areas of the Marlowe building in future years.