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David Walker, Nottingham and Southampton University (2008)


Nottingham Science Campus | Highfield Campus, Southampton

Nottingham Science Campus

Nottingham University was founded in 1948 after its predecessor, Nottingham University College, seceded from the University of London and received a Royal Charter which conferred the right to set its own syllabi and issue its own degrees. At that time the student roll numbered under 1,000, but such was the expansion in post-war higher education that by the mid 1950s that figure had doubled.

To meet the national demand for more scientists and technologists Nottingham increased its teaching provision as best it could within inadequate facilities.[1] In 1953 the University Grants Committee encouraged institutions with existing technological departments to apply for special funding to assist with their development. Nottingham stressed the importance of new Pure Science buildings for Chemistry, Physics & Mathematics, Geology and ultimately Pharmacy, to allow a further modest increase in undergraduate numbers and provide much improved research facilities for a significantly larger staff. It also hoped that funding could be obtained for buildings relating to the Applied Sciences, which were particularly important in the East Midlands. Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Metallurgical and Mining Engineering were to increase undergraduate intake by a third, while new departments were to be established in Chemical and Production Engineering, their chairs having been funded by industry. The emphasis, however, was on consolidating recent gains, rather than further expansion. Student numbers were to rise to 2,550, and Nottingham believed it could only grow further – perhaps to 3,000 – if there were a concomitant provision of halls of residence.

University Park was a relatively recent campus, having been acquired through the generosity of Sir Jesse Boot some thirty years earlier. Its centrepiece, the Neoclassical Trent Building, was designed by Boot’s own architect, Percy Morley Horder. After the war, the University enlarged its grounds by purchasing a wasteland in the Clifton Boulevard estate immediately to the north, and Sir Percy Thomas prepared a development plan for the whole campus, 227 acres in all.[2] In this plan the additional ground was allocated to Sciences, Pure and Applied. But although Neoclassicism continued to flourish at Nottingham in the work of Cecil Howitt and Farquharson & McMorran, a context of material and manpower shortages and the Government’s insistence that buildings be erected quickly and economically rendered traditional construction increasingly impractical; and the University authorities, in selecting an architect, may have thought it entirely appropriate that the new science buildings should be of a contrastingly modern appearance.

In 1955 they asked Basil Spence to produce a detailed layout for their scientific enclave, including preliminary designs for all the buildings, which would accommodate 800 pure and 500 applied science students by 1966. The challenge of designing and constructing so many complex buildings within such a short timeframe was considerable, and moreover, the larger buildings had to be planned so they could be constructed in two phases over two financial years.

On 21 November 1956 the Government announced its expectation that all Universities should expand considerably more by the late Sixties than had previously been intended, and in January 1957 Sir Keith Murray, UGC Chairman, wrote to Vice-Chancellor Bertrand Hallward suggesting that Nottingham might grow to 4,000 students. Hallward and his senior colleagues met with Murray on 18 March, but the discussions were not fruitful: the University refused to contemplate the expansion in numbers, while Murray had to explain that the £4 million development proposals were much too ambitious without it. Murray wrote to Hallward on 25 March to emphasise that if Nottingham were unwilling to expand significantly further, it could not expect such generous funding as it might wish, and following a University Council meeting on 27 March there was a change of heart. Hallward and Murray met on 3 April and agreed a target of 4,000 students and a budget of £3 million.[3]

* * * * *

Up to this point the development of the Master Plan appears to have been the subject of considerable experimentation but only the positions of three buildings for which firm commissions had been received, Chemistry, First Year Teaching and the Mining & Thermodynamics Laboratory had been established with certainty. However, once government funding for the whole programme had been confirmed the layout of the Master Plan and the designs for individual buildings suddenly assumed far more pressing importance. It was unfortunate that, in the weeks leading up to his fiftieth birthday, Spence had embarked on a touring holiday of France. During his absence Vice-Chancellor Hallward insisted the proposals be submitted for planning permission although they were not fully developed. As much as anything the scruffy presentation of hastily prepared drawings implied that they were not properly thought through.

The planning department sought comments from the Royal Fine Art Commission – of which Spence had only recently become a member – and the Nottingham, Derby & Lincoln Society of Architects, the local chapter of the RIBA. In its report the Society responded coolly to the proposals, criticising the relationship of certain buildings and in particular expressing concern that the tower which was the focus of the scheme might ultimately not be built.[4] It passed its comments to the RFAC. The Commissioners responded in guarded terms, but did not dispute the Society’s views. In such circumstances the planning committee could scarcely grant approval for the proposals as they currently stood.

Spence was acutely embarrassed and together with Jack Bonnington, David Rock and James Thomas he took personal charge of revising the scheme.[5] Within two or three weeks they had settled the Master Plan, Bonnington had drawn up presentation plans of all the buildings, and Rock had produced a series of line perspectives showing how they related together. Spence arranged to discuss the improved proposals with his fellow Commissioners on 11 September[6] and, just before they arrived, asked Rock if he could render his drawings in colour. Every few minutes the meeting was briefly interrupted by the appearance of a freshly washed new perspective, making for a most impressive display.[7]

The drawings and a detailed model were shown to the University’s building committee on 25 October and then to a joint meeting of the Senate and Council on 31 October.[8] They were formally examined by the RFAC at the turn of the year, and by the Nottingham, Derby & Lincoln Society on 7 February 1958.[9] This time, they were fulsome in their praise, and the planning committee gave consent to the scheme five days later.[10] However, Spence refused to go to Nottingham again, and Andrew Renton and Dennis Speller, who now took charge of the project, had to attend meetings in his place.

* * * * *

Spence was determined that, even if funds were relatively limited, his new campus should still recreate something of the traditional university atmosphere which he considered so conducive to learning.[11] He envisaged a translation, into English picturesque, of Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology: impressive buildings would be arranged in a tightly-planned but apparently informal layout around quads or lawns, conveying at once a sense of spaciousness and intimacy, with trees and shrubs, and terraces linked by orderly paths. Seating would be provided in falls in the ground so that students and staff could relax amid the pleasant surroundings of their new ‘Technopolis.’

The site was bisected by an existing thoroughfare running from south-west to north-east, known simply as Cut Through Lane. Near the eastern boundary stood a number of Ministry of Works hutments, which might have to be retained until 1970. The National Coal Board had the right to mine underground, posing problems of a rising water-table, subsidence and vibration.

In its final form the Master Plan retained the axis of Cut Through Lane as a paved pathway, now referred to as Broad Walk. A new service road running at a slight angle to Broad Walk, roughly south-south-west by north-north-east, separated the hutments off from the remainder of the site. A long slim range of buildings, the Second & Third Year Teaching Block, was planned between these two thoroughfares, but parallel with the service road, so dividing the site into two clear parts. The larger western part was a quiet pedestrian precinct devoted to Pure Science, while to the east there were four Applied Science laboratories connected to the teaching block at right-angles by bridges across the service road.

The centrepiece of the precinct was the Chemistry Building which lay immediately on the west side of Broad Walk. Its entrance and flank elevations overlooked the three courts, to south, east and north, around which all the Pure Science buildings were arranged. Broad Walk was closed off, at its southern end, by the Science Library, and at its northern end by the Electrical Engineering Tower. Chemistry, Physics & Mathematics (also on the west side of Broad Walk) the Library and First Year Teaching Building together enclosed the south court; the First Year Teaching Building overlooked the east court, while the north court was enclosed by the Tower’s low podium of workshops.

Spence conceived the designs for all the buildings, which then evolved as his staff explored possibilities with the academics who were their clients. From the outset it was envisaged that while they would all be rectilinear in appearance – based on a five-foot module – and that a limited palette of materials chosen for their good appearance and weathering qualities would be used, the treatment of the elevations would be distinctly different to give each its own identity. The requirements of the buildings’ varying functions called for varying structural treatments, in respect of which Geoffrey Trimble of Ove Arup & Partners provided specialist advice.

* * * * *

The Nottingham Science Campus represented part of a substantial increase in the workload of the practice from the mid 1950s onwards. It coincided with Spence’s Presidency of the Royal Institute of British Architects between 1958 and 1960, and the break-up of Basil Spence & Partners shortly afterwards. Spence wrote to Hallward in June 1960:

‘Since our meeting together at the Travellers’ [Club] when you told me of the situation at Nottingham, I have been trying to find a way whereby Andrew Renton can devote a far larger proportion of his own personal time as executive architect for the Science Development … This has had far-reaching consequences and I feel I should let you know of the plans that I have in mind.

‘I intend to give Andrew Renton “dominion status” so that he can treat Nottingham as a major project under his own executive care. This will mean that the present “Basil Spence & Partners” arrangement will cease to exist after the 5th April next year. We have however agreed that the present arrangement at Nottingham should continue. It would mean, in fact, that the work will be done by “Basil Spence in collaboration with Andrew Renton” and the paper will be headed in this way.[12]

‘I will still come in on the design as I have done in the past and I can now devote considerable time to this as I have relinquished my appointment at the Royal Institute.’[13]

When Spence wrote of ‘the situation at Nottingham’ he was doubtless making oblique reference to the problems of material finish and workmanship and the cost and time over-runs which had beset the three earliest commissions, Laboratory 1, the First Year Teaching Building and the Chemistry Building, and perhaps both he and Hallward had already anticipated that the general contractor, Richard Costain, would claim substantial sums for the additional work that had resulted.[14]

There may well have been difficulty in obtaining suitable materials or skilful labour, even a decade after the war, because of the sudden boom in every sphere of building construction; there was certainly a problem with ever-increasing construction costs, for which the funds provided by the UGC never made adequate allowance; there was constant pressure to complete new buildings as quickly as possible to accommodate the growing influx of students; and, in all probability, neither the most capable architects, nor the largest contractors, nor the academics who were their clients, had sufficient experience of constructing so many complex and expensive buildings in such difficult conditions within so short a timeframe. The situation was without any precedent.

For a general contractor bidding for work – the Chemistry Building was put out to competitive tender – the risk of severely under-estimating the costs of construction and incurring heavy losses was indeed a real one. But although the Physics & Mathematics Building again over-ran both its timetable and its anticipated cost, the Second & Third Year Teaching Building and Laboratory 2 were constructed to particularly high standards, and within budget. The relationship between the University and its architects was not always an easy one, but it is to their mutual credit that they rode out all the difficulties and completed the programme.[15] Their faith has been rewarded by a campus which has well withstood its heavy usage and the changing requirements of scientific advance, and which remains as attractive today as it was when originally completed.

Highfield Campus, Southampton

Southampton University traces its origins back to 1862 when the Hartley Institution opened in the High Street.[16] The Institution became Hartley University College in 1902 and eleven years later moved to a new campus in the Highfield district, near the Common. During the inter-war years Principal Kenneth Vickers organised a major construction programme, the central building being designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott although most others were commissioned from the local firm of Gutteridge & Gutteridge. The College was affiliated with London University which awarded its degrees, but full-time student numbers remained modest until after World War II, the total during 1945-46 being just 325. Far more daytime and evening students were engaged on courses resulting in diplomas or certificates.

However, full-time students rose to 586 in 1946-47 and 835 in 1947-48. In part these increases owed to mature students returning from wartime service, their entry into university being encouraged by the Government’s Further Education and Training Scheme which continued until 1953. More significant for long-term growth was the rising number of sixth-form applicants, a consequence of falling senior school fees and their ultimate abolition by the 1944 Education Act. Not least because of the universities’ vital contribution to the war effort, higher education, especially in scientific and technological disciplines, was now recognised as a worthwhile investment, and bursaries were provided out of general taxation and local rates.

Following Nottingham’s example, Southampton completed separation negotiations with London in 1952 and received a Royal Charter. Shortly afterwards Dr David Gwilym James was appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and by his unsparing hard work and characteristic intelligence, sympathy and charm, he steered the new institution through many difficulties during the next thirteen years.

In 1953 the University Grants Committee invited institutions with existing technological departments to seek additional funding. Southampton proposed to construct new buildings for its engineering and electronics departments which were of major importance to regional industry and the armed forces, but suffered from inadequate accommodation and lack of resources. The UGC’s acceptance of these proposals in July 1954 inaugurated a major expansion of the University.

In 1956 Basil Spence was appointed Southampton’s consultant architect and was instructed to survey the Highfield campus as the basis for a comprehensive development plan. The plan and a model were presented to the Joint Development Committee and the Students’ Council on 23 February 1957. Spence promised that if his proposals came to fruition, at an estimated cost of £6 million, ‘You will have one of the most interesting and beautiful universities in Europe,’ and expressed his view that ‘All it needs is foresight, planning, faith – and you’ll have it.’[17]

Inevitably these proposals were indicative of broad intentions only. Neither the Chapel nor the Refectory at the centre of the campus was ever built, both being superseded by the Nuffield Theatre as a venue for large University gatherings. Likewise, the proposal to build three residential towers in the campus’ south-western corner overlooking an artificial lake never came to pass.

However, the first of the new Engineering buildings – Phase I, Lanchester Building – with its projecting auditorium was immediately recognisable, its construction authorised to start at once along with that of the Economics Building. Thanks to the additional funding secured in 1954, Engineering figured prominently in the proposals, and the Phase II Tizard Building and Phase III Electrical and Civil Engineering Buildings were already shown in place.[18]

The model is particularly interesting since it shows that not only had the positions of the Chemistry Building and Senior Common Room been fixed, but their highly individual designs had already been conceived, years before construction began. The Chemistry Building is shown at right-angles to a Physics Building which was to have been closely similar in appearance, although this was eventually built elsewhere on campus, and to a very different design.

The development plan was well received, but when it was announced in February 1960 that the Government expected Southampton to increase to 4,000 students in the next twenty years and that, from 1965 onwards, the Highfield campus would grow in such a way that 400 houses might be affected, there was ‘very great fear’ among the surrounding community.[19]

In fact, local sentiment was so strong that the University reduced the area it proposed to acquire by approximately one-third, with a commensurate reduction in affected properties, and issued a statement and map to indicate its revised intentions. The statement explained that the new plan represented the University’s minimum requirements if it were to group all its academic buildings on a single campus – essential if the links between Arts and Sciences were to be maintained – but that residences would be constructed on other University grounds. The statement acknowledged that the necessary amendments to the town’s own development plan would probably trigger a Public Inquiry.

* * * * *

The final development plan submitted to the Borough Council for approval was for a roughly square campus of about sixty acres – almost double its existing size – its boundaries defined by Burgess Road to the north, Chamberlain Road to the south, Hartley Avenue to the east and Southampton Common to the west, and with the gentle curve of University Road bisecting it into eastern and western halves.[20] In contrast to the Nottingham science campus, which had been a relatively clear site and had been laid out freehand on a picturesque basis, the positions of new buildings within the Highfield campus were rigorously plotted on a 20 feet grid, and the buildings themselves designed on a 5 feet module.[21] In general – but with some exceptions – they were kept to a limit of four storeys so that students did not need to use the lifts.

The Engineering buildings extended across the full breadth of the northern boundary, with the Pre-Clinical Medical Sciences Building in the north-western corner.[22] The eastern half of the site beyond the existing Library on University Road was very much a scientific enclave, with both old and new buildings efficiently arranged round north and south quadrangles, and the Economics Building forming a division between the two.

The western half was divided into two sharply contrasting areas by the Senior Common Room facing directly opposite the Library. Together with the Nuffield Theatre and Arts Building I, the Common Room enclosed a paved courtyard – the Arts Quadrangle – with a pool graced by a reclining bronze by F. E. McWilliam; while with the Students’ Union, Physics, and Geology & Botany, it enclosed in a loose and informal way the existing botanical gardens within a shallow valley, so creating a sense of verdant spaciousness in a campus that was actually tightly composed.[23] By grouping the Library, Common Room, Students’ Union, Theatre and Chapel all together, the campus was given a strong communal core, one in which, although Sciences predominated at the University, the Arts as a source of interest and pleasure to all literally took the centre-stage.

* * * * *

The Public Inquiry into the University’s development proposals began rather later than expected, on 26 February 1963. On 11 September it was announced that the Minister of Housing & Local Government proposed to approve the development plan, subject to modifications requested by the Council and accepted by the University. Just 200 properties would be affected by the scheme.

The real achievement of the Highfield campus is not, however, to be measured in terms of the Public Inquiry’s favourable outcome, but by the success with which the architects – Basil Spence, and to an ever-greater extent over a period of twenty years, Jack Bonnington – created an attractive environment within a modest site where existing buildings and gardens restricted their freedom to act.[24] That success resulted from the skill with which the buildings were disposed in the development plan, and the manner in which they complemented each other and their existing surroundings. If limited budgets made it hard to design good buildings in the late 1950s and early 1960s – when the Nottingham science campus was under construction – then that was still more true in the mid and late 1960s, and the early 1970s. Although the grants available for scientific buildings were often substantial, that was because their technical requirements necessarily made them so, and there was comparatively little money for elevational enrichment, or even structural solidity, on the weak, wet ground.[25]

The simple Modernist style of the Highfield buildings – their walls often clad in mosaic panel, with some Michelmersh brick relating them to earlier work, and steel-framed windows – together represent an appearance of homogeneity in contrast to the variety of styles and materials at Nottingham. Indeed, it is probably this homogeneity which makes the juxtaposition of buildings of different plan-forms and heights so striking – as, for instance, in the relationship between the Lanchester slab-block and the Electrical Engineering Tower, or the square-based Geology & Botany Building and the liner-like Physics Building. But each of the buildings by Spence and Bonnington has its own intrinsic interest and modest gracefulness, whether the elevations and underlying structures are relatively simple or complex. They are well-considered, practical, solidly built designs, and like the Nottingham campus have mostly worn their years well.



[1] The background to the University’s growth during the post-war period has been traced through UGC records held at the National Archives, Kew: UGC 7/56, 7/57, 7/68, 7/389 and 7/473. The story of the Science Campus itself derives principally from correspondence files held at RCAHMS and information from James Thomas who worked at Basil Spence & Partners between August 1957 and January 1960. The Sir Basil Spence Collection holds hardly any actual drawings, but the University has retained its copies and transferred many onto CAD for ease of reference. For a contemporary report on the University’s development, see the Architects’ Journal, 9 January 1958, pp. 61-62, and for more detail, A. Peter Fawcett and Neil Jackson’s Campus Critique: the Architecture of the University of Nottingham (1998). They discuss Spence and Renton’s involvement with the Science Campus on pp. 94-95 and pp. 106-13.

[2] For details of Thomas’s proposals, and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s landscape plan which followed on from them, see Architect & Building News, 5 May 1955, pp. 531-33; Architectural Review, January 1956 (Preview).

[3] By January 1958 when the grant was confirmed, this had risen to £3.3 million.

[4] Letter from T. J. Owen, Town Clerk, to Basil Spence & Partners, 18 December 1957. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/153-54.

[5] Information courtesy of David Rock and James Thomas, in conversation with David Walker, 4 April 2007.

[6] Letter from Spence to Bertrand Hallward, 13 September 1957. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/165.

[7] Information courtesy of David Rock, in conversation with David Walker, 13 February 1957.

[8] Letter from H. Pickbourne, University Registrar, to Andrew Renton, 1 October 1957. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/160-61.

[9] Letter from Spence to Owen, 9 January 1958; letter from Spence to Hallward, 2 February 1958. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/151, 147.

[10] Letter from Pickbourne to Spence, 13 February 1958. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/142.

[11] See letter from Spence to Hallward, RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/130; and for general background, ‘Teaching Laboratories’ in RIBA Journal, April 1958, especially pp. 190-96.

[12] Presumably the architects’ writing paper used in relation to the Nottingham commission; the working drawings themselves are also identified in this way.

[13] Letter from Spence to Hallward, 25 June 1960. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/116-17.

[14] The proposed claim for the Chemistry Building, which at one point reached as much as £135,000, accounts for much of the correspondence in the Spence Collection at RCAHMS. For a relatively concise summary, see Gleeds’ report of 6 May 1963, RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/38/1/48-51.

[15] The campus was extended with buildings devoted to Pharmacy and Psychology, Geology & Cell Biology after Renton had set up in independent practice.

[16] For a background report on the University’s development, see Architects’ Journal, 9 January 1958, pp. 69-70. The introductory context of this chapter derives chiefly from A. Temple Patterson’s The University of Southampton (Southampton, 1962) and the newspaper cutting files assembled by the Local Studies Library from the Southern Daily Echo and Southern Evening Echo, especially HS/ls 12a.

[17] Southern Daily Echo, 24 February 1958.

[18] The arrangement of the Lanchester Building next to the Electrical Engineering Tower would seem to relate to the plan for Edinburgh University which the practice was designing at the same time.

[19] Southern Evening Echo, 29 February 1960.

[20] See RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/-/-/169ff.; 131; 108ff.; 105ff.; 45; 21ff. (ck!!!!).

[21] Information courtesy of David Rock, in conversation with David Walker, 13 February 2007.

[22] This was eventually built at the Boldrewood Campus.

[23] In respect of McWilliam’s sculpture, see letter from Basil Spence to Gwilym James, 23 March 1961, RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/-/3/125; also -/3/119; 92; 73-75; 56; 50.

[24] A small number of buildings are by other architects: most notably, the Mathematics Building and Pegasus Computer Centre by Ronald Sims. See letter from Sims to Spence, 18 May 1961, RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/-/3/95.

[25] See letter from Robert Mais of Trollope & Colls to Spence, (ck. Date), and Spence’s reply, 12 September 1961; also letter from Robert Potter (of Potter & Hare, Architects) to Spence, 21 October 1961. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/-/3/79, 76, 68ff.