New kids on the block

April 3, 1998

A modern architect's task is to blend hi-tech design with a motley collection of campus buildings, Jeremy Melvin writes

Buildings at Oxford and Cambridge, such as the Radcliffe Camera and King's College Chapel, have attracted admiration for centuries, but appealing to potential students was not part of the aesthetic brief.

"We survive by our attractiveness," says the bursar of a Cambridge college, referring to the architecture of a new student residence. "Christminster", which had seemed so enticing from afar to Jude the Obscure, turned out to be a university of solid walls and closed doors. If Cambridge needs to enhance its aesthetic qualities, what about those institutions without its natural and historical advantages?

Christminster's architecture contributed to Jude's sense of oppression. Collegiate universities, their teaching methods and view of knowledge evolved near perfect architectural expression in the quadrangle form. It looks inward and its layout encourages certain types of contact and discourages others, while its skyline offers opportunities for things such as dreaming spires.

The implications of this architectural form were not lost on the university builders of the 1960s. Bath, Sussex, York, and East Anglia were close to towns that might have acquired universities hundreds of years earlier. However, they drew their aesthetic inspiration from another English architectural tradition, the country house, curiously combined with the prevailing bias in favour of openness and transparency. But, arguably, what was gained in openness was lost in subtlety. The dramatic but crude shapes of East Anglia and Sussex could be interpreted as a direct analogue of the unmediated view of education; that knowledge is knowledge, facts are facts; and, just as 120 years earlier Mr Gradgrind had seen pupils as vessels waiting to be filled with facts, so, implicitly,did the university builders of the 1960s.

All this carried on in arcadian settings, perpetuating the myth that has held popular attention since Alberti at least, that the countryside is the only place for intellectual speculation.

Universities of the Victorian era represent an alternative viewpoint. Often growing out of medical schools, themselves based around hospitals whose role increased enormously alongside the growth of cities and awareness of infectious diseases, they had to have a different relationship to their context. They were places not for scholastic speculation but positive social action. And that action was frequently connected to other civic improvements. So an architect such as Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) could apply the same aesthetic expression, variants on a grandiose gothicism, equally to law courts, town halls, hospitals and university buildings - even the Natural History Museum - where civic dignity, progress through learning and moral rectitude make a not entirely satisfactory cocktail of aesthetic stimulants.

Slightly later, during the 1890s, technical and art colleges started to develop their own humbler tradition. Rooted in the arts and crafts movement, which prized simplicity, and often controlled by parsimonious authorities, their architecture aspired to efficiency and plainness. Their history is more chequered than universities, in architecture as in management. Often they came under local education authority control; they had little or no flexibility in procuring their own buildings, but had them foisted on to them by their local authority's architects department.

Subjected to mergers to become polytechnics in the 1970s, then autonomy and finally university status 20 years later, they are often motley collections of buildings and sites, united only by history and certainly not by architectural coherence.

David Dunster, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, identifies this as one of the most difficult challenges facing new universities, where architecture and administration have to work together.

Ironically, it is often in these institutions that the most challenging and rewarding architectural opportunities now lie. Oxford and Cambridge colleges will always have the sites and often the money to produce fine buildings - several have taken advantage of the low construction costs of the 1990s to add to their accommodation - and the universities themselves may sometimes commission masterpieces, especially when the pockets and tastes of major donors allow. But Richard Fielden, partner in architects Fielden Clegg and moving force in the Higher Education Design Quality Forum, welcomes the possibility of "lean and value-for-money architecture" that the new universities represent. He cites Sunderland, where his firm and BDP created a new campus, Liverpool John Moores and Portsmouth as having new buildings "as good as any in the old universities", and Cheltenham, as "an excellent example of an institution that has turned itself around by commissioning good buildings".

The forum, Mr Fielden says, brings together clients and architects to improve the input from both sides. It began in the early 1990s when the move from the University Grants Committee to Higher Education Funding Council for England meant there were fewer design guidelines; when the Royal Institute of British Architects was trying to orientate its members towards client concerns, and, above all, the Idris Pearce report of 1993 was bringing about a quiet revolution in the way universities viewed property. The stress Pearce put on to considering the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a whole portfolio was perhaps even more of a challenge to the new universities, with their diverse holdings and lack of client experience, than to older institutions, whose buildings might be doing essentially the same tasks that they had performed for hundreds of years.

In its wake, the Follett report put about Pounds 150 million into learning resource centres, which some of the sharper new universities used to create distinctive foci for their campuses. An example is at Liverpool John Moores, where a cruciform-shaped learning resource centre designed by Austin Smith Lord responded to a "demand to integrate the building" with its city surroundings, says ASL partner Frank Woods, encouraged by a far-sighted property acquisition strategy.

The most spectacular use of a learning resource centre to liven up a dreary campus is at Thames Valley University. Stephen Spence, who was a project architect at the Richard Rogers Partnership, says Mike Fitzgerald, the vice-chancellor, wanted an open, welcoming place "where you could take your coffee into the library". "The diagram came early," says project director Amarjit Kalsi, but they had to work hard to simplify the construction and maintenance. The landscaping around the building helped to strengthen its position in the campus of unappealing 1960s slabs, adding a rigour and order, and extending the openness of the steel and glass learning centre. Its design is simple: a rectilinear box contains the resources. Readers take or access the box from numerous desks under a large curving roof. Glazed at both ends, it avoids the privacy of the traditional study carrel, encouraging interaction and adding a sense of personal security in a forbidding precinct that might be used 24 hours a day.

Named Paul Hamlyn after the university's chancellor, this learning resource centre might be contrasted with Jesus College Cambridge's library,completed in 1996 to designs by Evans and Shalev. It is an urbane brick box with neo-classical references in that college's modest precinct, but its real presence comes from the dramatic sequence of internal spaces of which the exterior gives no hint. A well-placed source in the Cambridge architectural world says Jesus has been "exemplary" in its commissioning of new building - thoroughly investigating a shortlist of architects before making an appointment -unlike the university, which has on occasion been swayed by the views of a forceful faculty member or fashion to make inappropriate and hasty decisions.

Barring spectacular donations where individual sponsors will inevitably have a large say in the appearance of a building, much of the expenditure will be on refurbishment. Stuart Cross of HEFCE's estates department estimates that Pounds 4.5 billion will need to be spent on maintenance and renovation in the next ten years. It need not be dull. Mr Fielden cites the University of Central England in Birmingham, which commissioned Hawkins Brown for a slick refurbishment of a 1960s tower, and Associated Architects to remodel the university's jewellery and art schools. The latter is a Grade 1 listed Victorian gothic art school where, says AA's Matthew Goer, "everything was painted white" to satisfy the anti-Victorian aesthetic sensibilities of the 1950s and 1960s. Seminar and tutorial rooms,"which the Victorians didn't have", had to be inserted; some of the original decoration could be replaced, but the taste for white walls was met by white screens in the big spaces.

Peter Blundell Jones, professor of architecture at Sheffield University, warns against the "mechanistic and economic attitude to buildings and their use" in the Pearce report. It is wrong to say that buildings are inefficient due to low occupancy, he says. Living rooms and bedrooms are only used for a proportion of time too. "You can't run education," he says,"according to what rooms are available." Even more serious, he believes, is the tendency to design buildings for non-specific use. Then "there can be no resonance between the buildings and the users - rituals are not substantiated by the building", and, he adds, "the city doesn't have identifiably different buildings". Identity could be lost.

The relationship between higher education institutions and their urban context is certainly the most pressing issue. That might be slotting a new facility in a listed Oxbridge college precinct, enhancing personal security on the fringe of an unlovely town or, in the words of Ian Caldwell, director of estates at Imperial College, where there are new buildings by Norman Foster and John McAslan, "completing an existing square ... and fitting the function to the townscape".

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.