Living in harmony

Combining a contemporary music college with a mix of residential accommodation, The Music Box is a new landmark for Southwark. Trevor Morriss, principal architect, explains to Jack Wooler how uses were carefully integrated to create a unique hybrid

Connecting a new ‘cultural corridor’ between Southwark tube station and Tate Modern, The Music Box by SPPARC Architects is a distinctive and unusual new addition to its central London location. The building is home to both a music college and, above it, accommodation for 55 apartments. The architects worked collaboratively with the dual clients, developer Taylor Wimpey Central London and the London College of Creative Media (LCCM). SPPARC were approached after the clients visited one of the practice’s nearby buildings in Southwark. There was already what SPPARC say was a “fairly frustrated” planning consent for the site, for a building significantly smaller than the Music Box, and the architects were brought in to find a new approach. After a complete reappraisal of the site, and how it worked within the urban grain, the architects identified a way to give it new life, blending the cultural and residential offerings into a new landmark for the area.

Core strength

It was a key part of the brief that these separate elements be physically distinct, identified easily from the surrounding south London streets. As such, the finished structure splits these two typologies into a distribution of a third at lower levels for the college, and two-thirds at upper levels for residential apartments. The base third, covering the first four floors of the Music Box, houses the private higher education college, LCCM. Rehearsal and performance spaces are located predominantly at the front of the building, along with a ground floor cafe, basement bar and music venue. The College’s new home can accommodate 550 students, taking undergraduate degrees in subjects such as music performance and production, creative and professional writing, and music management. The college portion has been constructed with distinct, horizontal, musically inspired masonry, around a porous design feature of cut-out glazing. This cut-out feature, sitting in the centre of the facade, allows a glimpse into the daily life of the college for those walking along the street, displaying the rehearsal and performance spaces. It also creates a dramatic entrance to both the college and the apartments. The higher thirds, with a triangular corner cantilevered over the entranceway, house the residential component. Enamel-finished fins run down between the floor to ceiling glazing on each level, creating a verticality to contrast and separate the two portions. This residential component provides 41 high-end flats, along with affordable housing, sold to Wandle Housing Association, with seven homes for affordable rent, and seven for shared ownership. All of the private housing units have already been sold, and the affordable housing is fully occupied. With three different elements on the site, the music college, the market rent residential apartments, and the affordable residential portion, Trevor Morriss, principal at SPPARC, says it was “certainly a challenge” to implement an efficient floor space. “The building’s design had to accommodate the high level of activity in the site,” he says. “The design of the core in the middle enabled this, as well as allowing for a very well balanced glass-to-core ratio, perfect for the residential uses.” This core cuts across the college and residential elements, and is arranged over a basement area. Housing the vast majority of plant here, the architects freed up space on top of the building for roof terraces and green roofing. As well as the plant, a venue space and bar for the college has been integrated in the basement, which Morriss describes as a key part of the building’s “heart and soul.”

A visual definition

On the building’s lower exterior, a frequent use of glass has been complemented predominantly by brick. Rather than directly emulating the brick materiality seen in many of the surrounding buildings, the architects chose a white, glazed brick. While the continued use of brick references the local vernacular, the way it’s employed also provides a major contribution to the building’s unique character. Because the base of the building is substantial, however, the architects were concerned that a solid brick wall besides the open glass studios could seem overpowering. Instead, long slot windows were integrated n this element of the facade, in order to break down the scale of the building, and to give it what the architects term a “horizontal hierarchy.” Morriss explains further: “We used a Flemish bond in the brickwork, which is a very traditional bond of masonry. We did it, however, with an over-inflated brick.” He continues: “The bond normally alternates between a full brick, and then a cut brick, and so on. Instead of cut bricks though, we used a full brick, and then a double-sized, larger one.” Beyond using scaled-up Flemish bonds to reduce the visual scale, and provide a less imposing structure, the architects created a relief in the brick facade to display a subtle musical theme. “To reflect the internal music college, we’ve actually used the brick bond to create musical notes,” says Morris. This pattern, protruding from the white-faced brickwork on the lower portion of this building, is in fact the guitar notation for ‘White Room’ by late 60s power trio Cream. Morriss explains the genesis of this idea: “We’ve got a very talented architect in the studio, who in a former life was a successful musician. He meticulously planned the brickwork to depict the key notes of the song’s riff. On the upper floors, the residential portion has been designed to have a different outward form, and is very much vertical in its appearance, where the base is horizontal. This verticality is manifested largely in the fins which run beside the glazing. They are of textured enamel on a steel backing, with the steel backing creating the vertical spine. Referencing piano keys, the fins provide more than just aesthetics however. Through their vertical junctions, the fins channel fresh air into the apartments. With the homes’ ventilation requirements fully provided for, opening windows were consequently unnecessary in the residential portion. This allows for floor to ceiling glazing throughout the apartments. Additionally, the angle of the fins provides privacy from the outside world, and changes the building’s appearance when it is viewed from different sides. Head on, the building appears to be transparent, but from the side, the building looks like a solid cube.

Going for gold

With visual definition between functions being fundamental in the design of the Music Box, it was important that these elements be blended effectively. While this was in part achieved through materiality, Trevor tells ADF that applying the Golden Ratio was key in combining the separate functions. “The reason that the Golden Ratio comes out as an identity is because we didn’t want the architecture to challenge the creativity that was going on inside the building,” says Morriss. “We were hugely immersed, engaged and interested in the internal functions. It doesn’t often come around that you are able to design a contemporary music college, with this being only one of two in Europe. That challenge was a fantastic opportunity for us. What we didn’t want to do was have the architecture overpower that.” As a well-known mathematical proportion, the Golden Ratio has been used throughout history, not just in architecture, but music and even in the human body itself. This ‘perfect’ ratio is defined as when the ratio of two quantities is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities – essentially, the proportion between two-thirds and one-third. “We wanted to bring this concept into the building. Music is a very pure form of art, so we wanted the architecture to be in a very pure form itself,” details Morriss. “This idea also worked perfectly to allow us to create a building with two sections.” He adds: “It’s definitely a building of two halves, but you can recognise that the base of the building has a different function to the top of the building, and that’s manifested through architecture.”

Internal composition

The architects put a substantial focus on creating privacy for the residents, while retaining a visible entrance into the college. When walking along Union Street, people can easily recognise it as a college, while more discreet entrances (one for the market rent apartments, one for affordable housing) are placed alongside for residents, their exterior continuing the musical notation pattern from the facade above. Internally, the architect says there’s a “warmth” that is carried throughout the design. The flooring and doors are of timber, and the interior design is clean and modern throughout the corridors and apartments. Leading into the homes, the musical theme has been continued, with the doors made from lacquered white wood, again referring to piano keys. Full floor-to-ceiling glazing extends throughout the apartments, with daylighting maximised in the dual aspect units. In order to prevent the single aspect units from suffering by comparison, the architects ensured that none faced north. On the residential portion of The Music Box, the glass fins that extend from the top of the building to the top of the college, as well as providing the apartments with fresh air, allow for the level of glazing to be maximised. This provides significant extra daylighting, and gives residents uninterrupted views of the London skyline. Inside the college, the full height glazing has been continued, flooding the rehearsal spaces and study areas with an abundance of natural daylight. The aesthetic aspects of the residential’s interior are contrasted by the interior of the music college however, which, while still clean and elegant, takes on more of an industrial feel, with pipes and lighting often left exposed.

Acoustic separation

As well as the necessary visual separation, it was also vital that the different sections be acoustically separate. With two vastly different uses, both capable of producing a lot of noise, alongside the inevitable vibrations from the nearby railway, this was understandably a priority for the architects. According to Trevor Morriss, this challenge wasn’t just about the residents not hearing the college’s students, but also the other way around: “If you think about what’s happening within the college, yes they are generating music, but they’re also recording as well, so they don’t want any sonic disturbance from the outside.” To achieve this, the architects created ‘music pods’ which separated the rooms from the main structure. Achieved in collaboration with acoustic engineers The Equus Partnership, the architects have provided the necessary barrier to block sound travel, and meet the acoustic requirements of both sections, so neither use was compromised.

A brighter future

Alongside its many other positive qualities, not least the realisation of the design challenge of delivering two different typologies in one building, The Music Box has strong green credentials. It achieved a BREEAM excellent rating, thanks to green roofing, strong thermal performance with low U-values, and a combined heat and power system which serves both the college and the residential portion. “Its very clean and green,” explains Morriss, adding: “That isn’t something that’s just bolted on, it’s something which has been installed in concept from day one.” This aspect of arriving early at key decisions appears to have been a common theme throughout the project. Rather than a block of flats ‘bolted on’ to a music college, from the outset SPPARC looked to create a building which is a careful combination of elements, bringing them together with a harmony and a sense of fun that belies the challenges of the brief. However, this is par for the course, says Morriss: “Architecture is full of challenges and puzzles, it’s how you respond to a brief, how you put those puzzles together. “Architecture should be joyful, however; it doesn’t need to be austere. It can have a real playfulness and delight to it, and that’s really what we were trying to achieve with this building.” The project architect concludes on how The Music Box has contributed to this end: “For a site which before was not contributing at all to the street, now we actually have a building which is alive with creative energy. That’s a rare and beautiful thing to have been involved in.”

Project factfile

  • Client/developer: Taylor Wimpey
  • Central London Architect: SPPARC
  • Structural engineer: Pell Frischmann
  • Planning: Deloitte Real Estate
  • Landscape architect: SPPARC
  • Conservation/townscape: Richard Coleman
  • City Designer MEP: SVM