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Feature: Have post-war university buildings passed their sell-by date?

Dunelm House 2

Brutalist and Modernist buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, then considered the finest of their type, are increasingly at risk as universities embark on a new period of expansion

Brutalism is experiencing some unaccustomed love at the moment. A petition to save Durham University’s concrete students’ union building, which is threatened with demolition, has attracted nearly 2,500 signatures in only a few weeks. And in the North West, heritage groups – and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr – recently attacked proposals to demolish 1960s buildings on the University of Manchester’s north campus.

This public support comes at a time when, according to Catherine Croft, director of The Twentieth Century Society, Brutalist buildings are increasingly under threat as UK universities, home to many of the best examples of the style, expand and modernise.

Croft says the national picture is ‘depressing’. She adds: ‘What is more frustrating is that this is happening at a time when these buildings are becoming more and more popular among a younger, student-age audience.’

For many, the early 1960s marked a golden age of university building in the UK (see The Architectural Review, October 1963). Such enthusiasts for Brutalist buildings look to Historic England to intervene, and hope its expert voice will be heard by planners. The AJ can reveal the organisation is already in the early stages of a thematic study of post-war university buildings with a view to putting forward contenders for listing, a project it expects to complete within the next couple of years. At present just 61 post-war university buildings are listed, but Croft says ‘far more’ should be given statutory heritage protection. 

‘There’s an enormous range of extremely good buildings from this period and listing only got as far as skimming off the outstanding ones,’ she says.

The Brutalist period was one of those rare periods when British architecture abandoned its habitual stance of offensively inoffensive ‘good manners’

Jonathan Meades

So, what is the scale of threat to Brutalist university buildings and why is it happening now?

Earlier this month, The Twentieth Century Society revealed that it would appeal against culture secretary Karen Bradley’s decision not to list Durham University’s Brutalist Dunelm House (pictured above), designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership with Ove Arup and opened in 1966, after she went against Historic England’s recommendation to grant it listed status. 

The university, which estimates it would cost £14.7 million to redesign and repair Dunelm House to ‘accommodate new uses’, is planning to flatten the building. It says it intends eventually to hold an international architectural competition for its replacement.

Days later, the society was engaged in another battle to save post-war university architecture, this time joining the Manchester Modernist Society, which has Marr as its patron, in speaking out against Bennetts Associates’ draft proposals to overhaul the campus created for the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in the 1960s.

Umist manc

Umist manc

Detail view of Renold Building (1962) University of Manchester, by W Arthur Gibbon of Cruickshank & Seward

These are not isolated cases. The Twentieth Century Society is preparing for a battle against an expected planning application for Cumberbatch North and South Buildings at the University of Oxford’s Trinity College, designed by architects Robert Macguire and Keith Murray and opened in 1966. A Certificate of Immunity from Listing was issued for the student accommodation blocks in 2015. Indeed the society is so worried about the blocks’ future it has named the buildings, along with Dunelm House, on its list of the top 10 buildings at risk for 2017.

The future of Basil Spence’s 1963 Faraday Building on the University of Southampton’s Highfield campus, for which Spence did the masterplan, also hangs in the balance as the university considers ‘different options for the future of the building and the site’, including demolition and redevelopment. A university spokesperson told the AJ that the Brutalist tower is ‘partially occupied at the lower levels’ but these will become vacant when the university’s new research facility at its £140 million Grimshaw-designed Boldrewood Innovation Campus is completed in early 2019.

Faraday tower southampton david martin

Faraday tower southampton david martin

Source: David Martin

Faraday Building (1963), University of Southampton, by Basil Spence

But are such buildings worth saving? Writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades thinks so. ‘The Brutalist period is important because it was one of those rare periods when British architecture abandoned its habitual stance of offensively inoffensive “good manners”, of strenuous politeness,’ he says. 

‘In this it is akin to the Baroque era and to the work of circa 1855-1875, both of which are now valued, though not before the latter suffered the usual depredations. Judgments ought not to be made on the foundations of fashion. Fashion self-evidently changes.’

Meades suggests both Dunelm House, which, he says, ‘comes as tonic surprise’ in Durham, and the Faraday building should be saved. ‘Southampton’s post-war renewal began dismally, but the second phase, which included Basil Spence’s university buildings and the work of the city architect Leon Berger, turned a massively blitzed wreck into one of the great successes of that optimistic time,’ he adds.

Croft believes that, rather than buildings from the era reaching the end of their life, they may have reached the point where their services are ‘probably in need of renewal’.

‘Once you start doing that, then people question the value of the building altogether,’ she says, suggesting that it is easier for universities to raise funds for a new building than for the ‘unsexy’ alternative of a refurbishment.

Thomas white riba4171

Thomas white riba4171

Source: Architectural Press archive / RIBA Collections

Sir Thomas White Building (1976), St John’s College, Oxford, by Arup

One of the issues with 1960s university residential buildings is the lack of en-suite facilities, she adds. Universities, she says, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, are ‘desperately trying to get money from the conference market out of term [time]’ and they can charge more for en-suite accommodation.

Croft thinks post-war buildings are coming under threat because universities are ‘desperate’ to increase the accommodation on their sites as a whole. While a lot of the original buildings were ‘generous’ in terms of public space encouraging people to interact, she believes now ‘there is more and more pressure to create buildings that pack students in’.

Universities, previously reliant on government grants, are engaging in major capital programmes across the country. ‘The advent of tuition fees has actually given so much more resource to universities and it’s a very competitive market so they are putting money into real estate facilities,’ says Julian Robinson, deputy chair of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum and director of estates at the London School of Economics (LSE).

He says the approach universities take to 1960s buildings, which, he points out, vary in quality, depends on the building in question. After first looking at refurbishment, the LSE tore down a couple of ‘very poor, incredibly inefficient’ buildings from the period – Clare Market and St Clement’s Phase 2 – as part of its Centre Buildings project, designed by Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners, which is due for completion in late 2018.

Taking a different approach, the University of Brighton contracted Fraser Brown MacKenna for a £29 million refurbishment of its 15,000m2 10-storey Cockcroft Building.

And the University of Strathcylde is inviting architects to tender for the design contract for a £41 million revamp of two 1960s buildings on its John Anderson Campus – the Colville Building and the former Architecture Building. Its decision to move architecture students from their Brutalist home, designed by Frank Fielden & Associates in 1967, attracted criticism in 2013.

The point about university buildings is that in the 1950s and the 1960s they were the cream of post-war building

Elain Harwood

Historic England has sent its advice to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport after receiving an application to list the Sir Thomas White Building at St John’s College, Oxford, construction on which began in 1972. The college is in ‘early stage’ discussions about refurbishment in the student accommodation building, designed by Philip Dowson at Arup, which retains original design features in the bedrooms, including window seats and latticed privacy screens.

Andrew Parker, principal bursar at St John’s, says work is needed on internal electrics and pipework and that the college is thinking of how to adjust some of the provision of the building, which was designed at a time when the college only admitted men, so it is ’a bit more suitable for modern-day use’. Requests, yet to be agreed, have included en-suite accommodation. Parker says any refurbishment work will look to preserve the features designed by Arup and that the college does not wish to change the building’s external appearance.

In July 2015, the culture secretary turned down Historic England’s recommendation of a Grade II listing for another Dowson design, the university’s Denys Wilkinson Building in Keble Road, which was built between 1963 and 1971 to house nuclear physics laboratories and features an unusual fan-shaped accelerator tower.

‘I don’t detect any general movement with the university sector to get rid of 60s buildings,’ says Robinson, which he adds are ‘like Marmite: it depends on the individual estate departments and the individuals within the university and how they perceive their building.’

But Eddy Rhead, founder and director of the Manchester Modernist Society, expects more proposals from universities to do away with post-war buildings as they progress expansion plans similar in scale to those seen in the 1960s. ‘There has been a shift away from faculty-focused architecture,’ he says. ‘What I mean by that is in the 1960s a faculty would commission a building and it would be built specifically for that purpose, for that faculty. There is a move away from that to more adaptable, long-term use.’

He acknowledges that some of the University of Manchester buildings under threat in Bennetts Associates’ draft proposals are not fit for modern teaching nor do they meet students’ – nor the faculties’ – current needs. However, he says, whatever the quality of a building, demolition should be the last point of call from both a sustainability and heritage perspective. Buildings including Cruickshank & Seward’s Renold and Barnes Wallis buildings are worth saving not only from an architectural point of view, he adds, but also because of their importance to the history of education in Britain.

A University of Manchester spokesperson insists ‘no decisions have yet been made about particular buildings on this part of the campus’ and says views raised in the public consultation on the strategic regeneration framework will inform future decisions.

Historic England says it has chosen post-war university buildings to study now because many have recently turned 30 – the age when a building can be considered for listing. Historic Environment Scotland has no plans to conduct a similar exercise, but it has reviewed four campuses, those of Glasgow, Strathclyde, Stirling and Edinburgh universities, and looked at individual proposals for St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dundee universities in the past five to eight years.

‘The point about university buildings is that in the 1950s and the 1960s they were the cream of post-war building,’ says Elain Harwood, senior architectural investigator at Historic England, who believes many of the best buildings have already been listed. ‘Public funding guaranteed them, so the best architects could be contracted.

‘Government funding was cut very sharply from about 1968, so after that it was really only Oxford and Cambridge that could afford to carry on building buildings of quality.’

Urs lego building 2

Urs lego building 2

The URS Building (1970), University of Reading, by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis – also known as the ‘Lego’ building

One ‘rare’ later example outside Oxford and Cambridge, Harwood says, is Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis’s Brutalist URS Building – also known as the ‘Lego’ building – at the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus, which was built between 1970 and 1972 for the then Faculty of Urban and Regional Studies. The building was Grade II-listed last summer following a recommendation by Historic England as part of its review into the university’s plans to develop the site. This led the university to withdraw its original plans by Hawkins\Brown, for the refurbishment of the building to house a new architecture school. It is now working with Wokingham Borough Council and Historic England on revised plans.

That building may be safe for now but, like Rhead, Croft expects more buildings from the post-war era to come under threat. She may be heartened that millennial students are ‘discerning consumers’, interested in the history of the 60s and 70s. But she claims that universities are not effectively marketing their interesting and unique buildings. What is more, the most important decisions over university development are still being made by people in their 50s and 60s.

’In the last episode of [the BBC’s 1969 series] Civilisation, Kenneth Clark pondered our capacity for destruction and evil, and then saw hope for the future in the new universities, and a walk round the library and campus of the University of East Anglia,’ says architecture critic Owen Hatherley. ‘The destruction mooted for places as serious, elegant and thoughtful as Dunelm House and the Faraday Building is a pretty minor example of our current capacity for barbarism, but it’s sad and depressing nonetheless, and must be opposed.’ 

So – a warning. Architects should take careful note of the petition to save Dunelm House, and the growing appreciation of post-war buildings, before throwing their hats into the ring to design their replacements. Otherwise they may find themselves caught in a battle between the stalwarts of Brutalism and the pro-development university estates departments.



Cumberbatch Building (1966), Trinity College Oxford, by Macguire and Murray


Maria Nesdale, prinicpal and global leader, Gensler

Universities across the world are now faced with a critical question on how best to equip individuals for an economy that rewards entrepreneurs - the tech-savvy and the socially minded. Durham is not isolated from this global debate. To stay relevant and enable emerging thinkers to pursue surer pathways to success, university campus spaces, such as Dunelm House, must design spaces that offer people choice and control over where and how they work. Universities should seek inspiration from co-working spaces and start-up offices, which offer agile, collaborative areas that allow multiple activities to take place at once.

’As well as seeking designs for new buildings, universities also need to look at how tired, underperforming elements of their existing building stock can be revitalised to provide exciting spaces for collaboration. Many mid-century educational buildings have outgrown their original purpose in this digital age because students are engaging with instructional content at home via digital learning. This means that fewer lecture halls are required. As a result, these underused spaces can be revitalised and re-equipped to become spaces that prompt serendipitous interactions between students with professors, peers, academics, entrepreneurs, investors and more. These principles need to be applied at Durham to ensure that it remains an enduring and relevant bastion of learning.

’Universities must also modernise so that they stay attuned to the habits of next-gen students. This was a challenge Gensler’s design team tackled when the University of East London (UEL) asked to transform its Knowledge Dock space into a centre for entrepreneurship and innovation, using the Tech Company model as precedent. Taking a cross-practice approach that thought critically about the opportunities for co-learning, Gensler designed a space for the UEL that now combines brand, education, and campus life into one experience. By connecting the different floors and spaces through wayfinding, bold colours and strong graphics, the centre offers cross-collaboration and flexibility, whether a student wants to grab a cup of coffee or brainstorm with a team. For [Durham] to behave with similar pioneership, it must ensure that the college’s infrastructure offers great flexibility for it to embrace the most radical student demands of the future.’

Hamish McMichael, director, Berman Guedes Stretton

’We have become engaged in several vigorous debates over the qualitative value of these buildings with the 20th Century Society, often to the disbelief of their owners who have the burden of maintaining and heating them or trying to adapt them to current standards.

’Seeking to adapt these buildings can be a challenge, as they were often pioneering in their use of the available technology and the materials of the time. The work we undertook with Arup Façade Engineering in developing the re-glazing solution to Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester Engineering Department, was focused on re-engineering the technical requirements of the replacement glazing system, while trying to minimise any apparent visual change to the profiles so that they matched the original system. Our work to refurbish Powell and Moya’s pioneering buildings at Wolfson College and Corpus Christi College in Oxford, discovered that they were so enamoured by the new wonders of asbestos, that they actively sought to specify it everywhere!

’We have been advising St John’s College on the feasibility of upgrading their 20th-century buildings, having recently refurbished two Architects Co-Partnership’s buildings to bring them up to modern standards, including the famous “Beehive” Building and we have a deep admiration for Philip Dowson’s masterpiece. Good architects can appreciate the value of good architecture and would instinctively seek to respect and protect that which has real value.

’From this period it is the lesser known examples, which were less innovative and are therefore unlikely to be listed, which present far greater opportunities for intervention and re-use. To adapt Howell Killick Partridge and Amis’ unlisted Summertown House, for the University of Oxford, we were able to completely strip the façade and re-elevate the building with a new design based on their original archive design sketches, while resolving problematic details such as the cold bridging of the original concrete cantilevers.

’Several buildings that we have worked on have been listed during the planning process, based on the 20th Century Society’s recommendations. This can be frustrating for the client as it can add a significant delay to the programme and the imposition of restrictions can require more expensive solutions to be found.

’Unfortunately the listing process does not recognise many colleges’ efforts and their demonstrable appreciation of their post-war Modernist buildings. We have experienced the tension between those who recommend listing and those who have to agree how the buildings can remain in viable use. We have witnessed that those left to sanction what is acceptable in terms of the impact on the listed building are struggling.

’A more considered listing process would be helpful, which clearly articulates the aspects of the building which are of value, and is clear about which areas are of lesser significance, which could be modified without the need for lengthy consultation.’

Dunelm House model - as it appeared in the Architectual Review, October 1963 [Universities special]

Dunelm House model - as it appeared in the Architectual Review, October 1963 [Universities special]

Dunelm House model - as it appeared in the Architectual Review, October 1963 [Universities special]



Readers' comments (2)

  • The architectural quality is only one issue, and maybe one of the least important. The quality of education programme and place are also important. If a case for retention based on principles of sustainability (cultural, environmental, social and economic) can be made, then listing should be considered.

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  • That period, the late 50s and the 60s, was really significant, a period of architectural confidence and social importance. The sooner Historic England completes its review the better.
    Listing more of these brutalist modernist buildings - as we must - does not prevent them being adapted to suit modern needs. Indeed, that process of future change was specifically anticipated by many of the best campus masterplans and buildings of that era.

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