The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

1960s University Buildings

The English university system was not greatly challenged until the 1960s – as Stefan Muthesius says in The Post-War University Utopianus Campus and College (2000), “there were the two old foundations and ‘the rest'”(p.59). The sixties bore witness to new institutional planning and architecture. Until this point, collegiate universities were generally the norm – as opposed to campus universities which had expanded rapidly during the latter part of the previous decade – and the college quad, whether Gothic or modern, Muthesius argues was seen as a means of guaranteeing the kind of socialisation needed to foster academic and educational progress. But the ‘campus’ university led to a great deal of rethinking on the role and shape of the college.

Between the thirties and the fifties, many of the universities outside Oxbridge undertook significant additions to their existing sites, most using the late classical tradition which prevailed during this period for municipal commissions. The erection of Senate House designed by Charles Holden in London’s Bloomsbury, dating from 1932, is an example. It has been argued that it was not until Sheffield University’s competition for its new university building in 1953 that Modernist architecture really entered into British academe. The competition resulted in a nineteen-storey glass and steel tower block for the art and architecture department, finished in 1959. Designed by Golling, Melvin, Ward and Partners and now listed at grade II*, the competition is probably best remembered for the Smithsons’ entry. From this point, many universities began to plan at least one high-rise block as part of their schemes. Basil Spence’s proposals for a ten-storey engineering block at Southampton University is such a case. It could be claimed that the debate on university building was somewhat pushed forward by the architectural critics who rather suddenly took up the issue of ‘Modern’ university architecture in late 1957.

During the 1950s, all planners had to cope with existing university buildings, and tried hard to provide a sense of completeness. Casson and Condor, who worked first at Cambridge, and then on the task of reorganising the large and very incomplete-looking campus at Birmingham University in 1957, carried out much work. The 1960s saw the reorganisation of most non-university higher education into new technical universities and polytechnics, many of which built afresh.

The establishment of the polytechnics was a new and important direction for British further education. They were created as an alternative to the well established traditional model of higher education, which was increasingly perceived as exclusive, conservative, scholastic and middle class. The new polytechnics were concerned with professional and vocational training, and courses were justified through referring to the social and industrial demands they were meeting. The polytechnics were also designed to provide greater opportunities for more sectors of society to enter higher education, with opportunities to study on a part-time basis or in the evenings, which enabled students to simultaneously maintain a job. A range of courses and levels existed to cater for the needs of school leavers, as well as those wishing to study for a degree and beyond.

Unsurprisingly, alongside the establishment of the new polytechnics, a new architectural language for such institutions arrived. Two excellent examples, which have recently come to the Society’s attention, are the School of Engineering and Science, University of Westminster, London, and Brunel University, Hillingdon, Middlesex. Both are under threat from proposed alterations and redevelopment, and hence have been put forward by the Society for spot-listing.

The School of Engineering and Science, University of Westminster

The School of Engineering and Science was built by Lyons, Israel and Ellis between 1965 and 1968, and initially formed part of the Polytechnic of Central London, before it became the University of Westminster in more recent years. The Polytechnic of Central London was one of the initial thirty polytechnics designated since 1966. The design has been described as ‘powerful, idiosyncratic, angular, uncompromising and intense’ by Patrick Nuttgens, who was at the time architect director of the polytechnic in Leeds. It typifies the move towards a brutalist aesthetic in educational buildings. The School of Science and Engineering itself comprises an interesting mix of forms and finishes. Numerous rooms are expressed externally, most notably the main lecture theatre which hovers over the New Cavendish Street entrance, resulting in an interesting grouping of shapes. As one of the most noteworthy external features, it is described by Pevsner in The Buildings of England: London, Volume One (Third edition) as an ‘impressive formal entrance up a grand flight of steps into a spacious entrance hall, [with] a lecture theatre cantilevered out as a central feature’. Given that this entrance is of great merit, the Society is greatly worried by the present proposals that risk compromising its integrity.

Of major concern is the proposed treatment of the steps up to the entrance, which currently take their lead from the cantilevered lecture hall. The steps follow the hall in plan form and are set back at the building’s corner. The current application proposes to remove this simple but striking detail, and to add a ramp. Although the Society recognises the need for a more suitable ramp it feels that this solution is inappropriate because of the loss of this detail. The suggested ramp fights for attention with the entrance architecture and runs the risk of dominating the elevation. In addition, the Society is worried by the proposal to remove the present doors and replace one set with a glass box entrance. The proposed entrance is positioned considerably further forward than at present, which again would inevitably detract from the building’s original character. Although glass has been chosen to reduce the new entrance’s prominence, the choice of material is a significant departure from what presently exists, and is not in keeping with the rest of the building. Finally, we are concerned at the choice of wood decking for the area to the right of the entrance. Clearly, this is at odds with the original building material, and we have recommended a solution more in keeping with the original fabric.

Moving away from the entrance, the building’s white concrete circulation towers sit next to curtains of bronze framing and glass. Internally, the building is also carefully organised and the design very clean, being both light and functional with white walls and tubular rails. The ground floor accommodates the communal complex, a key element of the design that comprises the administrative suite, dining and common rooms, sitting areas and the lecture theatres. The upper floors comprise a seven-storey laboratory block to the east, and a four-storey tutorial block to the south. The library and lecture theatres form a link between the tutorial and laboratory blocks.

One of the building’s major achievements was fitting such a large school onto the site, which is a mere 1.198 acres. Not only was this far from an ideal site in terms of size, but height restrictions were also imposed on the building in deference to a future hospital to be built across the street. This led to the rather ingenious design described above, and can be seen as an example of restrictions leading to a considered and well thought-out design.

The Society views this building as one of the most striking 1960s polytechnics. Not only is it of special interest architecturally but it is also important historically, since it played a part in the establishment of the polytechnic, an important step that has shaped British education since the sixties.

Brunel University

Brunel University takes it name from Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the most famous of Victorian engineers. As an inventive, imaginative man, who embraced new technologies, Brunel University sought to emulate his qualities of creativity, ingenuity, rigour and excellence in adopting his name.

Brunel University was one of ten new universities created from colleges of advanced technology, and quickly became known for its science, engineering, technology, social science, law, politics and economy departments. The original Brunel College was in Acton, although three further sites in Egham, Twickenham and Isleworth became part of Brunel after the 1960s: for example, the Runnymead Campus in Egham, Surrey, joined in 1981.

The Hillingdon site, however, was developed in the late 1960s, following a decision to relocate from Acton as part of the college’s upgrading from a College of Advanced Technology in 1962. The master plan for the new university was prepared by Sheppard, Robson & Partners in that year, and the principal phases were built in 1965-7, mostly by the same architects. One of the most important requirements of the governors was that the students should feel loyalty to the university, rather than to specific departments. The Hillingdon site was developed with this in mind. Thus, the buildings were interconnected, and designed to bring together students of different disciplines.

The residential block was intended to accommodate as many of the students as possible. It has a series of terraces oriented east-west, built up of three and four-storey units, each with 30 students living off one staircase. The terraces lie along a slight slope of rising ground on the south-east of the site. They are of load bearing brick construction with concrete floors and roofs with a red stock external facing brick. A central refectory building also contributed to the community feeling. This building, together with the administration block and central lecture theatre block, has a reinforced concrete structure with standard pre-cast cladding panels and string courses, as well as a regular metal grid.

The administration block, with council chamber and committee rooms, is a simple office block and is linked to the large assembly hall, 300-seat theatre, and library by an enclosed court and shopping mall. In the centre of the complex, the central lecture theatre, constructed of reinforced concrete, contains classrooms, lecture rooms, and theatres, drawing together the spaces that might normally have been associated with separate departments. It includes 14 lecture rooms with stepped floors supporting 50, 100 or 180 seats. Six large theatres form an expressive and impressive centrepiece to the campus. Some of the lecture theatres are currently being upgraded to 21st century standards and we fear that more upgrading work might take place in the near future. This building is particularly interesting and powerful and we have put it forward for listing in order to safeguard its integrity.

On tiny budgets expert practices like Lyons, Israel and Ellis and Sheppard Robson & Partners produced a number of buildings of genuine power and conviction. These are among their very best works, and deserve to be better known and better treated.

Claire Barrett & Emmanuelle Morgan