Engineering Building, Leicester University
Major’s Walk, Leicester
James Stirling and James Gowan
Engineer: Frank Newby of Felix Samuely and Partners
Listed grade II*, 30 March 1993
This is a building of international significance, which defined modernism’s late-1950s shift towards a greater individualism and gave it a truly British character. Leicester eschewed Scandinavian influences for liver red Accrington brick and Dutch tiles, with aluminium-framed patent glazing, an updating of the industrial architecture of England’s nineteenth-century cities. Such a use of Victorian elements combined with constructivist forms and a twelve-storey tower is dramatic.
Leicester has the tightest site of the post-war universities, and the architects had to squeeze in workshops for heavy machinery, laboratories, lecture theatres, and a 30.5m (100ft) water tank to serve hydraulic experiments. The workshops, covering two-thirds of the area, had to have north-light glazing, but the plot does not run north–south. So while the building uses its site efficiently, the glazing runs at a diagonal, developed as a low-cost solution by Newby but denoted by wilful, lozenge-shaped terminals devised by Gowan. The interior is overwhelming because of the glowing, translucent light that results.
Comparisons can be made with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax complex at Racine, Wisconsin, the saturated light of the large, single-storey interiors similarly contrasted with their banded towers. The shapely forms of Leicester’s tower, thrust out on the stepping of two projecting lecture theatres, are credited to Stirling, again as refined by Newby.
The synthesis between Stirling and Gowan’s contrasting approaches gives the surprisingly skinny building its tautness. The partnership collapsed soon afterwards and, despite their subsequent individual achievements, for most critics this remains the sublime monument of the new brutalism. Perhaps the true partnership was between the architects and their engineer.
This was first published in 'England's Post-War Listed Buildings' by Elain Harwood and James O. Davies. Read a review of the book and interview with Elain Harwood here.
Read other extracts from the book:
Featured articles and news
A visually dramatic means of story-telling, large-scale murals can be an effective way to engage communities.
There were over 1,400 new articles added to Designing Buildings Wiki in 2016. Here are the top 15 most popular.
MVRDV reveal designs for a strange holiday villa in Taiwan.
New milestone achieved with launch of new safety lanyard for working from height.
A quick introductory article about preliminaries in construction.
Brandenburg Gate - an historic structure that went from symbolising German partition to European unity.
A discussion between construction key players and leading insurers on the future outlook for construction insurance.
New guide from BSRIA on building performance evaluation in domestic buildings.
Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners complete new trio of towers at Sydney Harbour.
With a new government consultation underway, ICE look at creating a smarter, more flexible energy system.
British Antarctic Survey announces research station is to relocate 23km due to growing crack in the ice shelf.