The SOAS Centenary Master Plan, spearheaded by the University’s acquisition of the North Block of Senate House, aims to invest an estimated £73 million into developing two new buildings and remodelling the existing space in the current buildings. The project may be the most significant development of SOAS’s facilities since the opening of Vernon Square in 2001.
The North Block project in particular is explained in the Student Union handbook, where Paul Webley, Director of SOAS, highlights the “sense of community” that would be gained by having a single campus in which students work and relax together. Many students will surely be relieved to see the end of frantic rushes between lectures at both
Vernon and Russell Square.
The planning process behind the North Block development has been very open, thanks to consultation sessions with both staff and students, which have resulted in numerous suggestions and criticisms, all of which can be read online. However, as with any development of such scale, reservations still remain and the Student Union has continued to hold those associated with the project to account.
One specific issue raised was that the 10% increase in space provided by the North Block would be accompanied by 10% more students in addition to the loss of Vernon Square. This surge in students could render gains of space less effective. In addition, many students spend time at SOAS after their lectures have finished, which could cause problems when they are congregating around one campus rather than split between two.
Another important point that was raised during the consultation process was the need for new facilities to be flexible enough to meet the demands of both classes and SOAS’s numerous and varied activities and societies. For example, current music rooms can only be used at certain times in order not to distract nearby classes. One can imagine similar issues in a building like Senate House which is not only home to a library, but also the administrative centre of the University of London and multiple research institutes.
Something can also be said for the building’s décor, which many find somewhat corporate in comparison to SOAS’s friendlier environment. Perhaps as crucial to increasing the project’s popularity as the quality of the facilities, is imbuing it with SOAS’s unique atmosphere and sense of community.
Although the design consultation process has now ended, students will still be able to influence décor, fittings and furniture. Hopefully, the move into the North Block will continue to be monitored by both staff and students, ideally resulting in a learning space based on the needs of those who will ultimately use it after its estimated completion in 2015.