The times, they are a changin’. Or summat’s up when the National Trust is running a series of tours of Brutalist architecture from Sheffield to London and Norwich. For over ten days and fully sold out, under the title Brutal Utopias, the organisation better known for its tea rooms and stately homes, has been celebrating 60s architecture. Viewport squeezed into one of the very last tours around the University of East Anglia campus in Norwich lead by the very engaging architect David Luckhurst, who at the age of 28 had been given the responsibility of managing the site back in 1963 with 9 months to build a university village.
The university campus on the edge of Norwich was master planned and designed by Denys Lasdun, (architect of the National Theatre and Royal College of Physcians, both in London) arguably Britain’s best architect of the second half of the twentieth century. Borrowing much from North American university ideas, his scheme was to integrate the university into the landscape ( a 128 acre rolling site and old golf course) and create a half-kilometre long “Teaching Wall” alongside a series of ziggurat blocks of student accommodation, that would allow the students to get from their beds to their lecture theatres within 5 minutes. This was not the age of £9000 annual fees clearly. Frank Thistlethwaite, the first vice chancellor of the university had met Lasdun when he had pitched unsuccessfully for a project in Cambridge and the pair went on to develop a very close working relationship. Thistlethwaite’s thesis was that great ideas arose form the cross over between the disciplines of academic study and wanted as much interplay between the arts and sciences as possible. All the teaching facilities are therefore contained within this single spine of a building that could adjust according to the requirements. The walkways were raised and externalised between the student accommodation and the teaching wall.
The student accommodation was a series of stepped pyramids – ziggurats, although Lasdun claimed he was not at all influenced by these ancient structures – based around groups of 12 single study bedrooms alongside a shared kitchen all with large glass windows looking out over the grassy landscape towards the river. The bathrooms and staircases are at the rear. Disappointingly today, the students are no longer allowed to climb out onto the flat surfaces to sunbathe, for obvious health and safety reasons. By 1968 however Lasdun had left the project for reasons unkown, although he was, according to our guide David, not the most popular man amongst some of the academic staff with whom he refused to engage. At which point Feilden and Mawson – David’s firm – took over the completion of the project and remained very faithful, although on much tighter budgets in the 1970s, to Lasdun’s scheme. One of their more popular ideas, and not in the Lasdun scheme, was the outdoor social gathering space “The Square”, flanked by steps, for students to sit on.
Over in Canada and at around much the same time (1963 – 65) , a 30 year old Australian architect John Andrews was at work on the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, some 20 kilometres outside of the city. And we were there last year during Toronto’s Open House weekend and got the tour. In the same way he was designing a scheme to work within the landscape but also to work within the much tougher climate of a Canadian winter. So, whereas the walkways of the UEA campus are on the exterior, here the walkways are all internalised and become double height study corridors with excellent views over the forest. The choice of site determined the plan making it a “rock like extension of the escarpment.” The length of the building is characterised by receding or cantilevered wings – reverse ziggurats – with lecture halls at the knuckles at which it changes angle. Roughly at the centre of this megastructure is the large and dramatic 4 storey internal gathering space lit from above, with the same idea as the outside space over at UEA. The concrete used throughout the building is more obviously and consciously brutalist in its appearance than that used in Norwich, with the clear impression of its vertical casting, and the very early use of the form – tie holes. Although John Andrews did not leave the project, the second half of the scheme was unbuilt. In fact the remainder of the university returned to a more sober set of individual department buildings. John Andrews himself, went on to design Toronto’s most emblematic structure, the CN Tower, currently the third tallest free standing structure in the world.
It appears however that the time has come for a whole new audience of admirers for these buildings (National Trust members included) that have been reviled for a few decades. Although one of the students at UEA sitting on the steps of the Square, when interviewed by Sky News about his views on the architecture used the adjective disgusting.