The London School of Economics is now a 'vortex of thinking'

A new building for the London School of Economics marries style and function in a way seldom seen before. Paul Milligan reports.

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) is a world renowned teaching establishment, so when it needed to replace an old site in central London, it was clear major investment was needed. Erected at a cost of £145 million (€172m) to improve the student and staff experience and the LSE campus environment, the Marshall Building is the new home for LSE’s business and finance-focused disciplines and is now LSE’s largest building. The new block, named after a benefactor of LSE, replaces 44 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, an eight-storey post-war office complex purchased by the university in 2015. Designed by Dublin-based Grafton Architects, the 18,000 square metre building houses lecture theatres, informal study spaces, academic offices, music rehearsal and arts facilities, squash courts and a 20m by 35m sports hall.

To accommodate this range of uses a rotating structure was developed to creatively address the need to transfer from the smaller spans at the upper levels, to the ever increasing spans required at ground and lower ground levels. This has led to a series of incredible ‘tree like’ concrete columns and beams in the form of tapered diagonal ‘branches’ which give the building an epic grandeur.

Tasked with the installation of the AV for the Marshall Building was systems integrator proAV. The provision of IT was to be supplied by the university’s IT team. This project is proAV’s third large scale AV deployment within a construction environment for LSE, with previous projects including the Centre Building which was completed in 2019. Occupying a central position within the LSE campus the Marshall Building has three separate entrances leading into a huge Great Hall, an open plan space for meeting and socialising. The interior is a dramatic visual centrepiece in sustainable concrete with a sweeping staircase leading to two floors of varied teaching spaces. After winning a tender process, proAV was engaged by LSE to review and redesign the AV equipment provision for all the teaching rooms, the Great Hall, further meeting rooms, the Rehearsal Studio and music rooms to include digital signage options and an assisted hearing system.

In collaboration with Sound Space Vision (consultants for the Rehearsal Studios) and Wide Angle Consulting, proAV had to consider the campus wide teaching standards already in place to develop a modern and forward-looking teaching and learning solution for LSE. Did the finished project differ much from the original plans from both consultants? “We worked with the client direct, so there were a lot of changes that came after that initial spec,” says Mark Dunbar, senior project manager, proAV. “The client wanted hybrid learning, or hybrid teaching, and they added the need for the Zoom platform, which was not in the original brief from the consultants, so it did go through a lot of changes.”

What was it that LSE was asking proAV to provide from an AV standpoint? “It wanted AV for teaching spaces, they love projection screens, they love speakers for sound reinforcement, they wanted microphones, and lecture capture systems.” The original goal Dunbar adds was simply to give them more learning spaces, and to bring more people into the building, “but because of Covid it advanced into a more hybrid teaching space where they would have some people in the class but also remote students and have the ability to interact over zoom and do video learning.”

The Great Hall entrance to the building provides a huge flat-floored space above which proAV installed a triple Epson projection display system with video and audio control via an iPad and the ability to wirelessly present thanks to a Mersive Solstice presentation system. Digital signage in this open space communicates LSE news and café offers on Samsung displays using Tripleplay’s signage platform. Within the impressive Harvard Lecture Theatres, a main projection display is coupled with Samsung repeater screens. AV system control is managed through Extron switching, distribution and control.

All teaching spaces have been designed to provide a hybrid solution with Shure MXA910 ceiling mics and Shure desk mics enabling remote participants to hear all the students in the room when on a Zoom conference call. There are two Enhanced Harvard Lecture Theatres, seating 90 people each, and four Harvard Lecture Theatres, seating 87 people each. In the Enhanced Theatres each seat has the addition of a Shure table microphone to allow for multiple people to debate and lecture capture and live streaming systems have been installed to allow for distance learning. The conference room and classroom spaces are a mix of collaborative and interactive styles to allow for different teaching methods.

Lectures and presentations can be recorded and observed through the use of Sony PTZ cameras and Wolfvision visualiser systems supported by additional audio from Audac, Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser.

The ability for BYOD is present throughout the building says Dunbar. “Every teaching space has the ability to present wirelessly, you can also plug in a laptop. There are various little booths scattered around levels one and two with a display on a wall, which have Mersive’s Solstice Pod Gen3 wireless presentation systems hidden behind them to send to the
user’s devices.”

The Rehearsal Studio is a fully equipped practice and performance space with a large 5m wide Screen International projection screen, 32 stage lights, ETC lighting control and production panels, an Allen & Heath mixing console, EM Acoustics sound equipment and a Sennheiser mobile connect assisted hearing system.

What were the biggest challenges facing proAV in this project? “It was the coordination of the AV and how it fits into the building. A lot of the containment routes were pre-cast before the AV package was even agreed, so there were various elements we had to change the designs of. We had to work with the main contractors to work out the easiest containment routes. There were other containment routes that needed to be added as there was more core drilling to be done. From an architectural perspective it was challenging because there is specialist joinery on walls which didn’t allow for AV to be fitted. We had to workwith the joinery team to have a look at ways of working around it. There were bespoke ceiling finishes and we had to coordinate exact placements for microphones to see how we could get them between the baffles without them clashing. Solutions were found as a result of a lot of coordination meetings with the client and the architect.”

How did proAV go about choosing the technology that it did for this project? “The LSE AV team have a preference on
technology, so they had a big say in it. In this case LSE was an Extron house, so it has Extron control systems. The majority of
the stuff, like the Biamp DSPs, is stuff they have put throughout their entire campus.” While LSE is keen to standardise on a lot
of technology, the Marshall building did include a couple of technology firsts for the university says Dunbar. “Mersive was new for them and had to go through all of their security vetting. Another new technology for them was WyreStorm’s AV over IP devices.”

Was proAV able to test onsite, or did building or safety concerns mean it tested products off-site? “We had an element of offsite testing. The good thing with the LSE AV team is they’re pretty proactive,” says Dunbar. “What we did is secure some of the products for them, and issue it to them well in advance, so they were testing on their network as well.”

AV at the Marshall Building is housed on the general IT server, with Dante devices attached to their own server. An internal AV
team will run the AV systems going forward, with proAV on hand for second line support if any is needed. Training was supplied by proAV on new devices to people at the university in charge of training, “We trained the trainers,” says Dunbar. “But because a lot of the team worked in the previous building a lot of those technologies were very similar. They’ve got quite a skilled tech team there as well, and since hand-over and training has been done we’ve not had any of their team contact us for any additional support.”

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper shortly after the building was opened earlier this year, one of the architects involved, Yvonne Farrell, described the building as a ‘vortex of thinking’ and it cannot have too many rivals in the world of higher education with it comes to such a mix of incredible architectural design and world-class facilities.

KIT LIST

Audio
Allen & Heath mixing console
Audac loudspeakers
Biamp Tesira audio matrix
JBL column PA speakers
Sennheiser handheld and lavalier mics, assisted hearing system
Shure ceiling array mics and tabletop mics
Sonance pendant speakers
Poly Trio conference mics
QSC amplifiers

Video
Epson projectors
ETC lighting control
Extron switching and distribution, touch panels
Mersive Solstice Pod wireless presentation system
Samsung displays
Screen International projector screens
Sony PTZ cameras
Top Tec lecterns
TK Team whiteboards & column boards
Tripleplay digital signage software
Wolfvision cameras

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