The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Photo University of Essex archive
Lego model. Photo University of Essex archive
A kitchen. Photo University of Essex archive
The Hexagon. Photo University of Essex archive

Something Fierce at the University of Essex

‘Something Fierce’ is an exhibition about the architecture of the University of Essex, celebrating its 50th anniversary. Kenneth Capon of Architects’ Co-Partnership wrote: ’The English love making things shaggy and softening everything up. We decided to do something fierce to let them work within.’ Capon’s ferocity has been loved by some, loathed by many and blamed for years of student protest. In 1972 John McKean devoted an issue of the Architects’ Journal to a critical analysis, subsequently employed by Vice-Chancellors and Estates Directors as license to neglect, degrade and demolish important features. A longstanding member of staff, I have tried, with scant success till now, to promote this Brutalist masterpiece, which I once dubbed ‘the counter-modernist sublime’ in the Twentieth Century Society Journal.

In 2012 the then Vice-Chancellor demolished a fine Library vestibule that we were unable to get listed despite massive support from this Society and English Heritage’s recommendation. This gem stood in the way of a library extension. But our new Vice-Chancellor, Anthony Forster, is an enthusiast for Brutalism who initiated the rehabilitation of  Dunelm House by Architects’ Co-Partnership at Durham University. He asked me to curate ‘Something Fierce’, refurbishing as a venue the Hexagon Restaurant, overlaid with post-modern decoration in the 1980s and mothballed since 2000.  His brief was to tell the story of Essex through its architecture.

My most surprising discovery was that Essex was intended not as a socialist seminary but as Britain’s answer to MIT. Sputnik was launched in 1957. CP Snow’s Two Cultures appeared in 1959 just as Essex was mooted. There was deep anxiety about Britain being left behind in technology. Essex was to be a campus of 20,000 recruits for the officer class of Snow’s ‘Scientific Revolution’, plus some social scientists, and a small arts faculty to humanise the geeks.

It was planned in 1962-3 by Capon and Albert Sloman, the first Vice-Chancellor. A campus for 20,000 must be big, but they wanted community. Hence the high street of five pedestrian squares forming the town centre. Teaching courtyards would be added behind the squares. Twenty-eight residential towers were to be slotted between the courtyards. You can be out of bed and into a lecture within five minutes. There are no freestanding buildings for autonomous departments. These are distributed along corridors in a continuous zig-zag around the five squares. To create a social group out of students from different subjects there are bed-sits on each floor of the towers with a communal kitchen. Essex is very compact so that everything and everybody are intimately interrelated.

The style is 1950s Brutalism. Corbusier’s La Tourette provides the low-key urban background for special buildings like the Library, based on Kenzo Tange’s Kagawa Prefecture. The Towers evoke Kahn’s Philadelphia Laboratories. The Hexagon is the shape of a quartz crystal, derived from the Twenties version of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House.

David Hillman designed ‘Something Fierce’ to showcase the Hexagon’s interior. Although we lost the Library vestibule we have regained the Hexagon – and respect for our Sixties architecture.

by Jules Lubbock

Visitor information:

‘Something Fierce: University of Essex – Vision and Reality’, The Hexagon, University of Essex, 7 October – 13 December 2014, Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am – 5 pm.

Getting there:

Point A on campus map

Gallery Guide to exhibition


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