1959 – University
There were few genuinely exciting pieces of architecture of the 1960s - it was, on the whole, a chronically uninspiring decade - but some of the best was to be found on Britain's university campuses. In contrast to the dreary, play-safe provinciality of contemporary housing and commercial developments, here was a new world obsessed with technological experiment and architectural adventure. Public money was made available for new 'plate-glass' universities to be built on green-field sites and some of the most exciting young architects in the country were commissioned to design them. Denys Lasdun -architect of London's National Theatre - built a 'ziggurat twisting and turning across the Norfolk countryside with the bulk of an aircraft carrier' for the University of East Anglia. Basil Spence, creator of Coventry Cathedral, turned the new University of Sussex into a Utopian city that might have been the seat of power of an emerging nation. Existing redbrick universities (and even Oxbridge) shared in the new spirit of expansion and adventure. At Leicester University, James Stirling designed this spectacular building for the Engineering Department, completed in 1963. His other academic commissions include the design of the History Faculty Building at Cambridge and also the Arts Centre at the University of St Andrews. Does this architectural style justify the 'Brutalist' tag with which it is often labelled?
The Engineering Faculty building designed by James Stirling and James Gowan for Leicester University was a classic example of the functional tradition in architecture. The outward form the building takes is determined by the uses to which the space within will be put. Once this rationalisation has taken place, the various elements are then assembled in a sequence reflecting the way people will use the building. At ground level, a long, low structure houses workshop facilities, from which rises a lavishly glazed tower containing classrooms and studies; each floor, despite housing generally similar accommodation, has a different plan. The considerable height of this tower was not a piece of architectural bravado but came in response to the engineers' need for a 100ft high head of water with which they could conduct experiments in hydraulics. Below it, the lecture theatre is cantilevered out, its raked form echoing the tiered seating within. Far from being, as well might appear at first glance, an abstract assembly of shapes and forms, this building is an accurate reflection of what goes on inside. On a personal level, Stirling was a great admirer of the industrial buildings of the 19th century, which he found 'unselfconscious and virtually anonymous'. He made a clear distinction between their original design concept - 'an efficient expression of their specific function' - and what he saw as an unhealthily nostalgic attitude to the architecture of the past, where buildings could 'be appreciated picturesquely, and possibly utilised arbitrarily'. His Leicester building was certainly functional - its designer was a lover of machinery in all its forms - and this has led to a good deal of criticism of its uncompromising design ('a hideous structure .. .the brutalist school at its most vicious'). To others, though, it is an architectural triumph, a landmark in post-war building design - Richard Rogers' famously high-tech Lloyd's building in London certainly nods in its direction - and the foundation stone of Stirling's huge reputation.
|1909 - Art School|