11 Sept 2011

The Universities of Leicester

By Chris Matthews

Leicester is a red brick city and appropriately home to the last of the “red brick” universities. It is also home to De Montfort University, named after the alleged progenitor of parliamentary democracy. Not surprising the history of English universities has closely chimed with the ruling class, which was slow to embrace industry and technology. It wasn't until 1871 that Oxbridge was forced by government to grant degrees to non-conformists. The University of London from its 1821 inception realised it needed to match Scotland and Europe in pioneering new subjects such as political economy and medicine. Oxbridge was stuck in a pre-industrial age, while the new northern cities had no provision to grant degrees. This problem was met by London granting affiliated degrees to provincial institutions, and eventually these college outposts grew into the "red brick" universities we know today.

A new University

Insert joke about academic insanity here - Fielding Johnson

Leicester University sits somewhere between the "plate glass" new universities of the 60s (Sussex, UEA) and those misleadingly titled "civic" or "red brick" which began out of the idealism of private industrialists (Manchester, Birmingham). As the last in line of the civic universities, Leicester is architecturally a contrasting campus. On the one hand it is an antiquarian box of tricks: an acquisitioned Prussian-style lunatic asylum, numerous nineteenth century mansions dotted about and the dour 1940s neo-Georgian stuff by Shirley Worthington (unbelievably the Ken Edwards building mimicked this in the 90s). Neighbouring the campus this pastiche continues: a memorial and gate lodges by Luytens and a pleasant neo-classical concert hall from 1913. Yet on the other hand this campus is a graphic designer’s mood board. When Leicester made the leap from College to University in 1957 Leslie Martin was appointed to create a masterplan. This resulted in a series of buildings by the very protagonists of British modernism.

For the city and the students - Victoria Park

What can be said about the individual buildings which hasn't been said already? When I was a student here I always preferred to approach the university via Victoria Park: Lasdun and Stirling's work providing a powerful backdrop to an autumn kick about or some gossipy summer lolling. Internally the relationship between the modernist towers and the park also works well. In the floors above the mezzanine of the Charles Wilson building you get a widescreen view looking south towards the central watershed of England and the blue/green subtle bowl of Leicestershire.

We can work with this - the Science Block

The other entrance is via the tree-lined University Road. Leslie Martin's science complex is unfortunately paying lip service to Luytens memorial and this mealy mouthed statement is further exacerbated by the tacky paving. Yet there is an interesting change in levels and the buildings have some contrast and rhythm. With the right kind of landscaping maybe the recently appointed Terry Farrell can reawaken this forgotten spot. The extensions to the Medical Science complex on the other side of University Way are a dire warning of the mental health of management during the last two decades, yet somehow the Richard Attenborough Arts Centre managed to sneak in. This modest modernist sits pretty between the postmodern beasts - unfortunately enveloped by car parking.

The tart in the library

I nearly didn’t write about the Engineering Building: my sorry excuse being that I was trying to discern the rest of the campus and critical praise is already plentiful (here, here and here). The job of the historian is to find interest about things which people don’t talk about. Yet I can’t avoid it. I remember from the library it was like some sort of clever tart: frustratingly leading my eye astray as I tried to trudge through that must-read journal. As the long winter nights drew in I was seduced by the glow from the crystal geometry of the workshops. Clever tart? U wot mate? It has a paradoxical wit: coherent and dynamic, distracting without being shallow – things which many iconic buildings today are not. Surprisingly Ian Nairn wasn’t charmed and though I’ve not read the Telegraph article, he is quoted as using the terms “bizarre”, “bloody minded” and “angry”. Pevsner meanwhile was full of praise.

Movement & balance

There are other moments to enjoy here which are not always on the architectural glossary of experiences. The concrete slab porch of the Museum Studies building has movement and balance, but who originally designed it? Despite the eternal wind created by the towers at the top of Mayor's Walk, the Attenborough paternoster is a lot of fun: you float above the bricky city in an open wooden box pulled by creaky ropes and as you approach the top you can see the northern end of Leicestershire: Soar becoming Trent by a steaming power station.

The Halls of Residence

Nice roof, shame about the curly fries

New student accommodation is notoriously bad and is visibly more penal than habitable. Oddly I have come to learn how lucky I was in experiencing these 1960s halls of residence first hand. Leicester University grew rapidly in the years immediately after the Second World War and the halls positioned on the outskirts of the city reflect this expansion. They are endowed with generous landscaping, large rooms, plenty of light and a clear plan.

A muted revolution

I spent a year at Digby Hall and although the head warden named Geoff liked to impose some sort of infrequent Oxbridge pretension, the halls were very convivial for socialising and maybe invoked some sort of revolution by the time the year was out. "Geoff is a cunt", was memorably burnt into the turf. Internally the dinner hall rhomboid roof is dynamic and externally the complex of is a muted Scandinavian modernism by Sheppard, Robson & Partners.

The wealth of student life (fifty years ago)

Stamford hall on the other hand doesn't do modesty. Pevsner thinks this is Lasdun’s most assured Leicester building. The mono-pitch dining hall and tiered common room terraces are asymmetrically opposed and although I’ve not been inside, there is probably an interesting play with light. The accommodation stretches out along castellated walls in a grid of playfully placed windows and round the back the external staircases and overhead bridges rise among the evergreens. Wonderful.

A lost civilisation

But what is overwhelming about Digby and Stamford compared to today’s plethora of incarceration is the sheer acres of green space. Nearer to town, College Hall by Leslie Martin and Trevor Dannat is reminiscent of Hannes Meyer’s work and is thankfully awaiting a new use as a converted conference centre. I initially feared that this building would be for the knackers’ yard, and that like the Peter Moro designed Clare Hall would be replaced by a cul-de-sac of Wimpey legoland crap off Elms Road. The rest of the halls are pretty nondescript: apart from Opal Court (Carbuncle Cup winner 2007), the unselfconscious nineteenth century mansions and the paternalist Beaumont Halls by Shirley Worthington.

The unselfconscious Leicester mansion

The main nagging problem with most of these halls is that they are positioned miles from the main campus and city centre. It was a real ball ache to make those early morning lectures; the bus forever late, full and slow. But this problem could have been ameliorated if the University and City had Dutch plans for cycling - London Road is wide enough to take it. Door to door could have been reduced from a painful hour to a casual twenty minutes. There is also a social problem, in that it alienates the students from the city by sticking them in suburbia. By the time the year was out I was desperate to escape this closeted environment.

Clarendon Park Di Dah

Frightfully lah-di-dah (I love you very much) 

Unlike Cardigan Road in Leeds, the sheer increase in the number of students has not ruined Clarendon Park. Kids still go to school here and the high street is varied and growing: there are charity bookshops, two Delis, a number of good cafes, bars and a greengrocers. Furthermore, there are still corner shops within the leafy bye-law terraces including a butchers and a real ale emporium. Unfortunately the gloriously untidy second-hand record shop has gone. Yes it does have some pretensions but socially it’s quite mixed and from here you can have an enjoyable walk into town. Sometimes I think why on earth did I leave?

Pseudo Cape Dutch – who knew?

One bored summer night me and a housemate went for a walk and noticed that the slope of Clarendon Park was like the English class system, and the higher you climbed the closer you got to wealthy Manor Park, Stoneygate and Knighton. These places are always worth a wander as you'll often find something odd like a pseudo 1920s Cape Dutch house but generally these places are neither pretentious nor opulent. Ray Gosling rightly noted in the 1960s how Leicester's non-conformist factory owners were modest in their mansions and often you barely notice anything behind the tree-lined roads.

De Montfort Industrial Aesthetic

Municipality - Hawthorn Building

Polytechnics were always more municipal and vocational in origin. In the 1880s the local Leicester lad and hosiery industrialist AJ Mundella was often quoted in Hansard warning parliament about the advances of German education. The subsequent touring commission resulted in Act of 1889 which allowed local authorities to levy for new colleges of technical instruction. An assortment of art schools and colleges were often absorbed into one Technical School which provided instruction to those employed in the local trades and formed close connections with the town's industries. After 30 years of de-industrialisation these former vocational colleges provide instruction for which there are few jobs and graduate unemployment is currently at record levels.

Art & industry - Portland Building

The origins of the technical school and its association with Leicester industry is brought to life by the Portland and Hawthorn buildings at De Montfort University. Built in stages between 1896 and 1937, you can see how Leicester developed a traditional Jacobean style and then merged it into a sort of classical deco. There are examples nearby of this aesthetic in the former hosiery works: Bryan (Great Central St), Harrison & Hayes (Gateway St) and the Deacon Knitting Co (Grange Lane). W.G. Hoskins often bemoaned the prosaic industrial buildings of Leicester, but on closer inspection there is a definite Leicester aesthetic.

Light industry & art - Harrison & Hayes works

One of the main reasons I eventually returned to Nottingham was because it had better connections to the art school. To put it another way, ‘there was more going on down town’. This was probably because Leicester had a definite barrier: the awful ring road which had severed the city from the art school since the 60s. Hopefully the recent traffic taming by the Magazine will have an improvement both on the retention of students and the freedom to walk.

From the medieval to the future zone - Queens Building

The stand out piece at De Montfort is the Queen’s Building by Short & Associates. A High Tech PoMo Jacobean tour-de-wotsit reflecting Goddard and the nearby hosiery warehouses: height, detail and lots of motifs. It's all very Leicester and hard not to enjoy the complexity. Unlike Short & Associates’ similar Lanchester library at Coventry it’s not a disappointment inside but rather a Crystal Maze of stairs and overhead walkways. I might be alone in liking the tower of the Fletcher building, a standard public sector in-house job by Thomas Locke, yet internally it is coherent and the modernist features have been treated with respect unlike its twin at Loughborough College.

The poverty of student life - Grange Lane

De Montfort is not well planned and although the new Students Union attempts to create some sort of public space it’s all pretty bog standard stuff. None of the University of Leicester accommodation could be as bad as those provided privately at De Montfort. Mean windows, tiny rooms, naff all proportion, no sense of place and there are bloody loads of ‘em. Sadly, some of these jerry built developments have replaced perfectly good industrial buildings but hopefully the recession has seen the last of it. Just round the corner is a proto modernist factory on Henshaw Street from 1893, with a Leicester light industry aesthetic which Pevsner rightly thinks Stirling's masterpiece is evoking. Thankfully it’s listed.

Sod the county, this is Leicester

Further down Mill Lane and overlooking the Soar is another wonderful Jacobean deco hosiery works which has been converted into student housing. It has a series of piercing concrete buttresses and a sky scraper style wall of glazing. Together with the river and the 1890s iron bridge this place adds to the itinerary of impressive and distinctive Leicester townscape. The new student flats further down road are quite the opposite: unbelievably humans are expected to enjoy views out towards a ten storey darkened crevice in Newarke Point.

Narborough Road

Cycling on water (sort of)

A contemporary theme with regional cities and their Universities is retention of students: most bugger off to London, and it's only those that are left behind who actually get to know what “the brain drain” feels like. Thankfully the Narborough Road area is to De Montfort what Clarendon Park is to Leicester - only poorer. Like Clarendon Park it is easily accessible by foot and although the Bede Island complex is pretty dull, on a hot August afternoon the park has a lively commuter rush. The Council is also currently attempting something similar at the end of Soar Lane with Rally Park being redeveloped and made more legible.

Jacobean deco - Bryan works

What De Montfort students have that Leicester University doesn't is an attractive post-industrial canal-side location. I doubt if anything will be built which takes full advantage (apart from this idea by Ash Sakula) but as a sustainable commuter and leisure route the River Soar will take some beating. Although certainly not dramatic, it is accessible, sheltered and full of historic interest. The series of bridges, weirs, and locks are very exciting and there are two occasions which give the effect of cycling on water. Perhaps one day De Montfort students will be able to cycle to the Space Centre but at the moment the path is still a risky ball jangler past Abbey Park. The main area set for development is around the Great Central Railway station, which is strewn with industrial archeology, including a Jacobean deco hosiery warehouse and Friars Mill. Sky Scraper City fans often ignore the street and public realm, which is a shame as Leicester City Council may be an example to others: the whole area is slowly becoming more cycle and pedestrian friendly.

Proto-modernism c.1893 (by Stott & Sons)


B. Burch, The University of Leicester: A History 1921 - 1996 (1996)
N. Pevsner & E. Williamson, Leicestershire & Rutland (1984)
J. Simmons, New University (1957)
N. Pye, Leicester & its region (1972)
M. Argles, The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction 1881-4, in ‘The Vocational Aspect of Education’, (1959)
A. Jones, Urban Impressions: Leicester City, in Jones the Planner (2011)
R. Gosling, Two Town Mad (BBC, 1963)


Anonymous said...

Excellent, lucid and interesting article.

Dali_ said...

I am a student (M. Arch Architecture) at De Montfort University the moment and what you say about the area is a fair description. The Queens building is very hi-tech, and even for this day has very good green credentials (way ahead of its time when designed in the late 1980's). Although, the the exterior is a little imposing, which along with the interior elevated walkways makes experiencing it rather like a prison visit.

At the moment this area of the Uni campus, including the Fletcher low-rise building is being rebuilt. I can't comment yet as to what it will be like – it will another 2/3 years as work in progress – but, in relation to what you said about pedestrian and cycling friendliness, this is being improved. In fact, Mill Lane has already been made vehicle free.

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