It cost £50 million, was designed by top architect firm Grafton Architects, and VC Steven ‘Mr. Bland’ Spier has described it as ‘stunning’. But the new Town House is already becoming a Clown House, showing plenty of signs that it is not all that it is cracked up to be. All the colourful KU balloons put up in January have deflated rapidly. It finally opened its doors on January 6, 2020, instead of in Sept 2019 – a full three months behind schedule and half-way through the academic year, much to the dismay of many final year students.
It is a six-storey modernistic building with open-plan spacious design and a ‘silent study area’. But, unlike the old library, it is not living up to all the extravagant promises made by KU and the top SLT Clown. For a start, it is proving impossible for many users to study in silence. It’s not possible to close off noise from the main stairs, which are wooden, open-plan and echo loudly when in heavy use. Footsteps or conversations on the stairs can be heard on all floors, and there are also serious design flaws which mean noise from the ground-floor cafe area and reception inevitably gets funnelled and drifts up to all the other floors. Staff are already reporting that big complaints about the noise problem are being voiced by student reps in student/staff committees. As a former ‘architect’ himself, Spier creamed his pants at the design and vision of the place when it was being built, but library staff were less convinced. And they are right. As well as the noise issue, other teething problems are still being sorted out by the contractors Willmott Dixon, which have involved drilling and repairs both inside and just outside.
Dance students have also discovered that they are often on full display in their studio to a small audience of male students who gather to watch and smirk at them through a glass wall. Another drawback for students is public access to the cafes. The building, which is open to the public until 9pm, has seen a number of local families bring in their children, which has added to noise levels drifting up to other floors or down to those below. Some staff have also taken to dumping their kids there (KU, remember, closed its nursery to save money). This was especially apparent in the February half-term week (a teaching week for students).
The poor old library staff, aware of growing student discontent, have even been forced to employ a couple of students to try and ‘police’ the so-called silent area. What is really needed, though, is surely a big re-think to try and contain the noise problem. Will KU spend yet more to address this? The short answer is ‘no’. As everyone knows, KU is in a deep financial hole (which one SLT member has privately described as a ‘chasm’ to the Student Union), one which Spier and his gang have desperately tried to resolve through cost-savings, compulsory staff redundancies (not applicable to the SLT themselves, of course), numerous course closures, and axing various support services. Fees have also been raised. As part of this, the SLT’s latest big plan is to close and sell off Kingston Bridge House, the KU student accommodation bloc in Hampton Wick. Students were informed out of the blue about this on January 27, just a few weeks after Clown House had opened. It is another desperate gamble to save money, made all the more tragic because, as recently as 2015, the SLT allowed a huge sum to be spent on the refurbishment of (yes, you guessed it) Kingston Bridge House. Spier is due to hold a special opening ceremony for the new Clown House in May, conveniently timed so that very few students will still be around to ask any difficult questions or voice their complaints.