In this article which appeared in the Alumni magazine The Southlander, SWF associate Nick Mayhew-Smith summarizes his research into the Methodist values that influenced the design of Southlands College.
The Southlands site was just a patch of grass when two recent visitors to the college first came to Roehampton. It is thanks to their combination of creativity and professional skill that the current buildings took the shape they have today, and remain a remarkable testament to a unique blend of Methodist values and robust architectural design.
Mike Leigh, Southlands College principal at the time of the development, and lead architect Richard Young were reunited in May 2019 as part of a project to celebrate the faith origins of the Roehampton complex. The pair reminisced about their collaboration, talking about ways in which the buildings had been shaped around the values and ethos of Methodism. Opened in September 1997 following the college’s move from Wimbledon Parkside, the Southlands buildings still bear the imprint of that initial vision.
Meeting at the college again some 22 years later, Mike and Richard were keen to pay tribute to each other’s sympathetic understanding of the project’s aspirations and constraints. In particular, Mike stressed the way in which their dialogue successfully shaped the overall look and feel of the buildings, avoiding a top-heavy ‘Methodist’ ethos in favour of a subtle and effective way to bring people together. Mike commented,
“We wanted something that was simple and muted in terms of colours, something that wasn’t showy but inclusive, creating a community without closing it from the outside world and outside influences. I believe the architects interpreted that miraculously.”
Although there are other Methodist educational institutions around the world, Southlands is the only one in Europe that was built from the foundations upwards with a clear sense of its faith heritage to guide the layout and design of the architecture. The current research into these origins was commissioned by the Southlands Methodist Trust and the Susanna Wesley Foundation, documenting the creative thinking behind this unusual architectural challenge.
The buildings remain a living embodiment of that vision, combining traditional university design features, such as the central grass quad or courtyard, with a number of innovations that reflect the college’s distinctive Methodist traditions. Key to the overall plan was a desire to make the buildings feel open and welcoming. Perhaps the most important innovation was to open up the central lawn, leaving all four corners as pedestrian access. This twist helps to avoid the more cloistered feeling of traditional university design, but more importantly speaks eloquently of the Methodist values of connection, of openness to the wider world. Mike explained,
“We went around various Oxbridge colleges to get some ideas, but then it was down to Richard: he defined it. At no point did I say I wanted white walls, or that colour of brick, it was all him, and I had perfect trust in him. I trusted Richard implicitly. It is wonderful, and my mind was blown away as much as anyone’s was by what was revealed here. I was surprised – surprised by joy.”
Richard Young was lead architect on the project, as a senior partner at the London-based firm Sheppard Robson. He describes his conversations with Mike as the starting point, a listening exercise that had to take place before any plans were drawn up. In particular he was keen to learn about the essence of Methodist Christianity as it might apply to a design project and an educational institution.
“Once we understood the bare bones of what Methodism is about – and simplicity and inclusiveness seem to me the two important aspects of it – we were able to ensure that those values were intrinsic, buried in the very DNA of the building. This isn’t wallpaper, something that you stick on top, but something that is instinctive about the place. It was only possible to achieve that through negotiation and understanding”.
One of the first things visitors to the college today will notice is the chapel, which stands beside the entrance to the central courtyard, a position that was deliberately chosen to pay homage to the Methodist heritage.
“It was important that the chapel was visible, it was the exclamation mark about what the college is about,” explained Mike.
“It couldn’t be in the middle of the site for all sorts of reasons, and it had to be quite small because of the likely size of the congregations, so it was an inspired place to put it. I think the chapel embodies Methodism so well in its simplicity and in its circular shape, a democratic space to meet. We wanted the college to make a statement about its Methodism, to be proud of its heritage, but one that was not in any way oppressive”.
The research into the architectural origins and their lasting effects on the community today is an ongoing project overseen by Dr Christopher Stephens, Head of College, and conducted by Dr Nick Mayhew-Smith, associate of the Susanna Wesley Foundation.