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Egg plot hatched to attract students

London has its gherkin; Southend has its egg. This is the futuristic face of further and higher education in South East Essex. The college's new campus, the most expensive and ambitious in the country, opened to students this term.

It has taken 10 years to plan, cost pound;52 million, and is now the most instantly recognisable building on the skyline. Funding has come from the Learning and Skills Council, the Higher Education Funding Council, the University of Essex, college resources and a bank loan.

The complex, prominently located alongside Southend Central station, will cater for up to 12,000 students and house 500 staff.

Designed by London architects KSS, and ranging from four to eight storeys, principal Jan Hodges hopes it will raise aspirations in an economically depressed area.

She describes it as "almost our Guggenheim". On a clear day the Canary Wharf Tower is visible from the top. The atrium, containing an egg-shaped auditorium seating 250, will be a new shop window for Southend.

The chance for students to complete degree courses in this new environment will, Mrs Hodges hopes, stem Southend's brain drain.

"As a town we export graduates," she said. "We want to get people who will qualify and stay in the local area."

The building uses highly advanced technology. The atrium is "glazed" by an ETFE envelope (ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene) that is kept inflated by small pumps - as used in the Eden Project. ETFE weighs less than 1 per cent of an equivalent-sized pane of glass. It needs less steel for support and lets more light through.

The "egg" was designed from the inside out, using acoustic surveys and 3D design techniques. It will be used for student performances, lectures and public hire, including conferences.

It has invoked comparisons with Norman Foster's "gherkin" shaped Swiss Re building in the City of London.

"The nickname egg is appropriate," said Mrs Hodges.

"It's nice to think of the college as an incubator for student minds."

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