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Engineering Building at Leicester University by Stirling and Gowan

John Jacobus examines the Leicester Engineering Building, completed in 1963

Originally published in AR April 1963, this piece was republished online in March 2011

The spate of college and university construction on both sides of the Atlantic during the past few years has already produced a just dividend of worthy buildings. The late Whitney Griswold’s success with diverse architectural personalities at Yale, where in the last decade a heterogeneous of provocative new university buildings has sprung up, is too well known to require comment here.

The new works at Cambridge, to mention only one ensemble of collegiate buildings in the UK, are presently of more local than of long-term international significance, though this condition will almost certainly be changed when Stirling and Gowan’s history faculty is completed some two years hence. For now, however, the Stirling and Gowan achievement can be thoroughly measured in their just-finished Engineering Building at Leicester University. Its design goes back to 1959, although it was occupied by students and faculty for the first time only in the fall of 1963, and its interior arrangements were still incomplete in certain details at the time of writing.

Like so many of the best university buildings since IIT, it scores its points as an individual, and not as part of an ensemble. This and other new college buildings must cause acute embarrassment to the proponents of coherence through master planning, since there is nothing irresponsible in the distinctive, unanticipated appearance of Leicester Engineering. Indeed, its uniqueness only reinforces the impression that a kind of Darwinian, laissez-faire attitude is mandatory in the hammering out of vital new buildings, especially at a time when so much contemporary design is compromised by exaggerated respect for locale, or for some hypothetical future.

Like Kahn at Philadelphia or Rudolph in New Haven, Stirling and Gowan at Leicester have given future architects and building committees a qualitative solution that can form a challenge for future efforts. They were not, themselves, forced into the strait-jacket of a local modernist cliché that was already established on the far side of the campus, and they refrained from setting up a rival one on their own quarter of the site-one which would have only required undoing at some future time. Instead, the architects addressed themselves to the immediate demands of the programme with devotion and respect.

Leicester Engineering is a product of its immediate circumstances rather than of its environment, present or future. It is a timely solution as well as a timely design. It realistically deals with the here and now and, without obstruction or interference, it leaves the future to find its own way. (In five years’ time, the building will likely be doubled in size.) Yet the contemporary reality of Stirling and Gowan’s building is anything but expedient.

Like so many of the most skilful buildings of the past half century, Leicester Engineering is cursed with a left-over site, an unwanted corner, and this was a blessing, in that it provided the architects with a stimulation and challenge to rise above the immediate circumstances caused by characterless neighbouring buildings. Helpfully, the demands of the client were clear and mandatory: the laboratory workshop space had to be completely flexible in their partitioning so as to permit subsequent change dictated by new experimental demands. Yet these same spaces had to be lit by northern lights since delicate machinery ruled out direct sunlight, which would have interfered with their accuracy.

A part of the structure, if not of the building proper, had to be at least one hundred feet high to accommodate a water-tank whose contents would be required for hydraulic demonstrations in the ground-level shops and lab areas. Finally, the architects were requested not to use exposed concrete finishes on the exterior. Happily this final request was in accord with their belief that concrete surfaces were inappropriate to the British climate. Out of this clash of site, functional demands and architectural temperament Leicester Engineering emerges, I dare to say, as a vital and nearly faultless solution.

The building, a low, ground-covering structure juxtaposed to a cluster of lightly balanced towers (thus directly meeting the two requirements of north light and height) is shaped in a legible way. It can be recognized for what it is from almost every angle. Its lines and masses together have a character that is both scholastic and technocratic, yet character is no more than a by-product of the building’s unrelenting devotion to its purpose, never a consideration in its own right. The form is rich in colour and surface, but its shapes are never gratuitous, and, what’s more, none of them looks fanciful, in spite of their novelty. It is a functional building that looks functional, a factory-like laboratory and classroom building which gives every appearance of being just that; a factory for study (but not, emphatically, an education factory.)

Explanation tells us how the building works, but the eye has already grasped intuitively the inner principles of operation simply by looking. Indeed, this is one of the keenest measures of any building’s total quality. Its clarity, which speaks through a vocabulary of red brick and tile, of ply-glass, concrete struts and expressionist-seeming roof forms is sensuous yet cerebral. It is not the by-product of this year’s or last year’s jargon, nor does it pander to some passing taste for shape or surface or technique.

Leicester Engineering is so complete and integral an architectural solution that at last one is consumed with a paradoxical sense of fury. Why have we been willing for decades to settle for less? Feeling and knowing as we have for the past two generations, how is it possible that this achievement is the exception and not the rule? Isn’t the functional clarity which this building documents the very thing which, we have been told, contemporary architecture is all about? Of course, in many respects we have allowed ourselves to be misled, especially about the architecture of the ‘twenties, almost invariably more cubist than practical, yet no less worthy of our admiration for all that.

What strikes me most after studying Leicester Engineering is how rarely architectural theory has accorded with design in the past two centuries. Today, in an age when many have aspired to taste and elegance, to delicacy and purity, all of a sudden we are confronted with an unsentimental, functional solution which takes us back, embarrassingly, to the adolescence of contemporary design. It is a little like seeing a film of thirty years ago projected on a new wide screen. The forgotten technique strikes us as even more poignant than the trite plot. At Leicester this is both the delight and the nagging worry. Functionalism is corny; we can’t talk of it to students without inventing new ritual formulas, and even then we blush, if only privately. Yet the technique, as opposed to the touchingly outdated utopian content of functionalism, rings true even now in a cynical age. It gives an extraordinary dignity to a building whose role is trite and workaday if not pedestrian, as seems inevitably the case with office buildings.

Grinning, the architect asked us what the building looked like. This is serious business in the game of criticism today. I had just come down from London via St. Pancras. Glass and red brick had fortuitously marked the start and finish of an hour-and-a-half trip made by stuffy Pullman. A century ago Scott and Barlow, the architect and engineer, hadn’t made much effort to get together, and consequently London’s St. Pancras station turned out as it did almost by accident. Leicester Engineering was no accident, the architects having visibly worked in accord with the engineers of the Samuely firm.

Nevertheless, it was an assemblage. This time, of course, the articulation of parts, and the bold use of the circulation and service spaces to make all this indelibly clear, was part of the architect’s deliberately functional aesthetic, whereas it was the individual professional vanities of the Victorian age that induced the violent articulations of St. Pancras. Still, the comparison stuck, for in the end architecture has to be judged by the way it looks. Leicester looks picturesque, and is just that, even if it was not composed with that aspect topmost in mind, as would have been the case in the bad old days.

Leicester Engineering also seems improvised and accidental as well as picturesque in the traditional sense; improvised as a college often is. This important illusion is significant in spite of appearing inconsistent with what has just been said about its real functionalism, and the justification of its parts. The building’s partition comes about because of use, present or anticipated and because of site. The tower came about because the north-light shops devoured the ground on the site, and because a one hundred-foot column of water was written into the brief.

One can think of the taller element as either a miniature skyscraper with a water tank forming the brick cornice of an otherwise glass sheath, or as a water-tower whose legs have been filled in with office space. Subsequently, the diagonal placement of the ridges of the north lights was dictated by the fact that it was impossible to place a northern-oriented building of sufficient floor area on the cramped site. Subsequently, this enforced 45-degree angle was allowed to influence other details of the building, especially in the cluster of towers, if only out of a desire for visual harmony. Out of these incidentals the architects fashioned a coherent, original and unforeseeable, vocabulary.

As a consequence of these adaptations to circumstance, and the way that they were employed secondarily in many details, there emerges a strong visual image whose memorable impact is rare even today in a climate where characterful images are sought for in designs, even without programmatic justification. In the end Leicester Engineering rises above the form-versus-content controversy that has plagued so many recent discussions and designs. Or at least form-versus-content seems a conveniently simplified way of summarizing current Anglo-American differences of opinion concerning architectural design.

This leaves us with the duty of detailing a genealogy for this first major monument by Stirling and Gowan. Their earlier flats at Ham Common and their housing at Preston gave promise of Leicester, but the present building owes little but its brick aesthetic to its predecessors. Indeed, this aesthetic is somewhat modified by the use of cleated red tiles (imported from Holland) as a frank revetment concealing the cantilevered concrete shapes of, notably, the two out-thrust lecture-theatres. However, this is merely a change of emphasis.

The real turnabout in Leicester Engineering is the architects’ spirited adoption of glass - glass as an opaque and translucent as well as a transparent medium. In addition to the transparent surfaces, there appear to be but two kinds of exterior cladding; red brick and a misty, silvery glass. In reality there are four: two are ‘real’; two are used rather as camouflage. The red brick and red tile, which appear identical at a distance, but faintly different at close range, have just been noted, and they form the first pair of real-unreal materials.

Something similar happens with the glass that encloses and roofs the workshop areas. The north lights are indeed translucent, being of a ply-glass whose inner layer is fibre-glass. Much of the rest of this part of the building is dressed with opaque glass that has a coating of aluminium for its core. Except at night, when the real lights glow from the artificial illumination of the interior spaces, the distinction between real and blind glass cannot be made from the exterior.

In exploiting glass, Stirling and Gowan have not blundered into predictable glass-box clichés. One has to go back to Wright’s Johnson Wax Building to find worthy comparison, and it is not without significance that this last of Wright’s thoroughly thought-through buildings is presently admired by the architects of Leicester Engineering (parallel-wise, we are told that Kahn discovered this same Wright triumph, but only in the wake of his Richards Medical Research building, not in advance).

Outwardly, Leicester resembles Johnson Wax in that both buildings offer the play of a vertical against a horizontal volume (an aircraft carrier with its island structure to one side of an offset deck, says Stirling), but differs in that Wright’s tower is all one thing, with wraparound tubular glass determining the shape, whereas the Stirling and Gowan tower visibly articulates its circulation, indeed, dissects it through transparency. Moreover, Wright makes little of entrance, access and circulation as things in themselves, the circulation and service core of the Johnson Wax tower being cramped and mostly invisible from without.

In this respect Kahn’s Richards building comes closer to Leicester Engineering than Wright’s buildings, whether late, as at Racine, or early, as in the 1904 Larkin building, even though this last, vanished giant is the ancestor of all contemporary tower structures that deviate from the skyscraper tradition. Still, Kahn’s served and servant articulation seems to produce a much more predictable ‘formula’ building than the method of Stirling and Gowan, whose functionalism seems to court chance and accident. But, there are losses and gains either way, and the comparison is meant to be illuminating, not invidious.

The tower elements at Leicester also rest upon another, more European, tradition, one well put in the van Nelle building at Rotterdam, where vertical circulation is made visible through a post-cubist transparency, and is not just stated in external projections in the style of Larkin, or for that matter, of the Pavillon Suisse. Others profess to see the shade of Sant’Elia in the tower assemblage of Leicester, a source known and admired by the Stirling and Gowan generation. Certainly the clarification of use and function, through an articulation which goes to the very threshold of complete separation, sustains this observation. Remove the glazing from the circulation core at Leicester, and these foyers turn into the exposed bridges linking the elements of Sant’Elia’s towers.

As a design of today, it is probably inevitable that Leicester Engineering turns out to be, even in its novelties, orthodox and traditional, whether the frame of reference is Scott, Wright, Mart Stam or Italian Futurism. It is a traditionalism which may not seem, immediately, to have much in common with the formalist New Tradition in the US, even though its roots are much the same. But the future will have a more secure foothold to settle this one.

It is possible to fit Leicester Engineering into a general picture of early ‘sixties’ style, however uniquely it now strikes us. In contrast to the struggle to separate things in the Stirling and Gowan design, Rudolph’s rambling Art Centre at Yale confronts us with an obsession for flux and continuity. What could they possibly have in common? Certainly not the overall shape or the underlying philosophy. Consider, however, the way in which the’ vertical circulation spaces of Leicester compensate for the cleavage of the working spaces.

A detail at the core and heart of Leicester seems to suggest a parallel with the whole of Yale’s Art Centre. Indeed, in these glazed corridors and foyers Stirling and Gowan had their one opportunity for a cadenza. Their response is characteristically hard-headed, in that the amount of space is visibly reduced through set-backs as the use of the building narrows to fewer and fewer persons towards the top. But the glazed treatment here is almost sentimentally archaistic, unashamedly neo-‘twenties in its transparent-reflective play of surfaces and spaces. A romantic dash accents an otherwise functional solution to produce a living illustration of total architecture.

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