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Age of ambition

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The Post-War University: Utopianist Campus and College By Stefan Muthesius. Yale University Press, 2000. 340pp. £35

The new English universities of the early 1960s - Sussex, York, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Warwick and Lancaster - were dubbed the 'Shakespearean Seven' because of their proximity to historic English towns.

Yet, perversely, they were also our most ambitious ventures into megastructural urban planning, conceived in conditions only dreamt of by housing architects.

The universities had a benign source of public funding in the University Grants Committee (UGC), whose five-year plans ensured that building programmes could be budgeted with confidence, and each had a single, powerful client in the form of their vice chancellor.

There was remarkably little debate on how so much public money was spent, yet much for the urban planner to relish. The unbuilt Hook New Town, a great podium of shops and housing over a valley roadway, is more frequently mentioned than its built offspring of Essex University, while the similarities between Lancaster University and central Stevenage have gone wholly unappreciated.

Stefan Muthesius has produced a deeply personal work which does not go into any of these schemes in great detail, but says much about the context in which they were created. That 'Utopianist' in the title is important.

Nobody believed they could create the perfect learning environment, but each professor and architect thought they were doing their bit to create a pattern of teaching and student living appropriate for the times.

At Keele in 1950, Lord Lindsay had introduced new courses that emphasized comparative studies rather than isolated specialisms, but was happy with converted army huts as classrooms. The AJ swooped in 1957 and declared Keele an architectural disaster. Lindsay's successors borrowed his teaching programmes but thought harder about their image.

Long ribbons of teaching buildings which could be adapted as departments as they swelled or shrank were one response; concentrations in big 'schools of study', another. The conventional hall of residence was forsaken as too expensive and outdated for students' needs, and replaced by self-contained flats or combinations of residential and teaching facilities. Spence's University of Sussex, RMJM's York and Lasdun's East Anglia indicate the variety of experimentation.

Government generosity was short-lived.

Other new universities devoted to engineering and applied science, founded following the Robbins Report of 1963, were emasculated by cutbacks. Yet the English efforts compare well in number and quality with those abroad. Muthesius leaves out Stirling and Coleraine, the UGC's most ambitious foundations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and talks throughout England, not Britain. But he charts systematically the colleges built in the US, Canada and West Germany in the '60s and '70s, and selects examples from France and Latin America.

Nobody else could do this with such authority. He suggests, surprisingly but convincingly, that England's programme gained an exceptional coherence through its single funding source, despite the superficial diversity of results. It says much for our attitudes to Modern architecture, as well as the unfortunate timing of their completion, that it was only at the new English universities that the student troubles of the late 60s were blamed on the buildings. Neither architects nor clients could foresee that higher education would become a microcosm for the dramatic changes in British society in that decade.

Yale, normally the most exemplary of publishers, has been mean here. The text is littered with typographical errors, and while the period photographs are pertinent, many are reproduced from photocopies. Colour is limited to some souped-up 1960s postcards and Muthesius' own snapshots. A shame, for this is the first book in 30 years on one of the most important subjects in Modern architecture. It is worth braving the contorted writing style - particularly hard going in the introduction - for the core chapters that explain how these complex, frustrating yet exhilarating buildings came into existence.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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