Redesigning Blackett: A student’s experience

Anthea MacIntosh-LaRocqueIn this blog post, undergraduate Physics student, Anthea MacIntosh-LaRocque, reflects on her involvement in a StudentShapers project that focused on redesigning the two main foyer areas of the Blackett Building. The team included Student Liaison Officer, Dr Yasmin Andrew and postgraduate student Max Hart. Each member was keen to transform these spaces – not only in order to improve students’ opinions about their educational environment, but also to encourage a better sense of belonging and community.

Mixed feelings

Walking around Blackett Laboratory during my first year always left me with a mixed bag of feelings. On the one hand, I was walking through halls bursting with innovative research and discovery. On the other hand, the building was outdated and disconnected from the very people who make the Department tick.

Take the cluster of black-and-white photographs hung in front of the main lecture theatre. In each frame sits a past Nobel Prize winner from the Department, and some of the photographs also show our Heads of Department over the years. These images are unquestionably important, but they are almost exclusively men and consequently not representative of the rich diversity of the Department I see around me today (or, furthermore, of the increased diversity we hope to have in the Department moving forwards).

On top of this, as students we never worked in the building. Instead, we’d scurry over to the library in search of some desk space and comfortable chairs that Blackett just wasn’t able to offer.

Blackett building foyer area
Blackett building foyer area on Level 2, before the redesign project

So, you can imagine how excited I was when I was approached by Dr Yasmin Andrew last March to work in a student-led team redesigning the two main foyer areas of Blackett over the summer, as part of a StudentShapers project. Obviously, as with all things over the past year, plans had to be changed in line with lockdowns, and the project was taken online before it had even begun. My first meeting with the other members of the team – Yasmin, Max and Josie – was over a Teams call in early June.

The process

The only “boundary conditions” we were given for the project was the location. We weren’t even told a budget, simply that we needed to come up with a student-centred design that would cater to the twenty-first century Imperial student.

Building up a portfolio of perspectives on the space was essential in getting the project off the ground. We drafted up a survey to send to our fellow Physics undergrads and postgrads, asking a mixture of questions. It included survey “staples” asking what students did and didn’t like about the space, alongside more profound questions probing how the new space might incite belonging and community.

1960s inspired colour scheme for the project
Our 1960s inspired colour scheme

Using the survey as our basis, Max and I created two different designs using an online design software programme called FloorPlanner (think The Sims, but without all the people). These designs formed a foundation for subsequent one-to-one staff interviews and student focus groups. The ideas that came out of these discussions served as the creative fuel for the rest of the project. Eventually, we refined our designs and agreed on a colour scheme. The 1960s saw the completion of the construction of the Blackett laboratory building (1961) and a rapid expansion of the Department under under Professor Blackett’s leadership. We decided a 1960s theme to the refurbishment would respect and honour the historical time the department has to this era. You would be surprised how engrossed a team of physicists can become in details as minute as the colour of a table!

We presented our designs to departmental staff to get some more feedback, and then finally sent them along to the Building Operations team in early September. You can view some of the design renders that Max and I came up with over the summer below – click to make them larger:

Seeing it through to the end

During this academic year I’ve been lucky enough to keep working on the project: liaising with furniture designers, providing further student input, and communicating the work that was done to the wider Department, including my peers.

Ultimately, I feel very privileged to have been able to make an impact on a space that my peers and I will soon be interacting in on a day-to-day basis — public-health measures permitting, of course. It’s not certain whether the building works and furniture will be in place by the time we are back on campus. However, rest assured, behind-the-scenes implementation is already underway. I’m also very encouraged by the fact that the StudentShapers leadership has proactively encouraged student input, right down to the very last plug socket and blackboard.

Design proposal for Blackett Level 3
Design proposal for Blackett Level 3

Not all sunshine and daisies

It’s undeniable that working remotely has both its perks and its downsides. The flexibility it provides allows me to manage my working hours in a way that complements both my studies and the project’s pace. Having said that, we all found it difficult not being able to visit Blackett during the designing phase. While we had all spent plenty of time there, and had access to floor plans, visualising the spaces still proved challenging. Questions like, “Is that wall painted?”, and “Do we have a bench there at the moment?”, were recurring guests in our meetings.

Reflecting on the experience

Overall, participating in this project has been one of the highlights of my time at Imperial so far. Working on a project so different from anything I would have encountered during my degree has given me a prime opportunity to learn new skills, to think on my feet and expand the breadth of my university experience. Learning how to interact with staff, deal with data in the social sciences, and develop a project using constructive criticism are just some of the skills I’ve developed during this project.

Topping that is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with making a long-lasting impact on the physics community I am a part of. I think the décor we chose really speaks to this sense of community. We aimed to honour Blackett’s rich history, whilst staying relevant to the Department of Physics we know today. Once we can return to campus, I’m looking forward to watching how the spaces we are working on become the Department’s social hubs, and improved areas for collaborative learning. On a personal level, I can’t wait to be back on campus and make use of these spaces for much needed down-time between lectures and labs!

It’s what you make of it

In my opinion the StudentShapers scheme, which runs a plethora of student-centred projects ranging from curriculum reviews to interior redesigns, is something all students should consider getting involved in. Not only does it provide you with the opportunity to take part in something not conventionally related to your degree, it also instils in you a sense of agency over your experience at Imperial. Moreover, the project has been a reminder to me that ultimately my time at Imperial is what I make of it. It’s so important to seek out exciting opportunities like this, to get stuck in, and to soak up everything the university has to offer.

By Anthea MacIntosh-LaRocque

Find out more about StudentShapers

The StudentShapers programme is open to all Imperial students across all Departments.  Find out more about how to get involved.

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