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Themes and Analysis

Locating the University in Time and Space



The University of Warwick was approved by Government in 1961 and building began in 1964 with the first cohort of students joining the university in 1966. The 1960s were of course a great decade for development and expansion of British universities. The number of universities increased during this decade from 20 to 43, and Warwick was one of 7 so-called ‘plateglass universities’ built from scratch. These institutions were noted as much for their modernist architectures as for the educational vision they signified.


In the first prospectus, the University was described as follows:

The University is located on the southern outskirts of Coventry, some 2 ½ miles from the centre of the city, astride the Coventry-Warwickshire boundary. The magnificent site of over 400 acres … is set in a landscape in which the typical Warwickshire field and hedgerow pattern is intermingled with woodland planting. The site is the largest in Britain designated entirely for university development.

We get an immediate sense of the rural setting, the location in relation to the local city and community, and the scale and ambition of the university. In fact the anticipated physical expansion of the university seems always to have been (and remains) central to the University’s identity and educational ideals. As we learn from many of the early photos and documents, the first buildings were situated and spaced out to allow maximum growth, and their architectural design drew on all that was new and forward thinking in the 1960s. In 2009, building work carries on apace, with more expansion planned, and the most recent architecture and materials likewise reflects contemporary and ‘futuristic’ trends in design and planning. As one of our interviewees, Ken, noted, Warwick has prided itself on ‘being at the forefront of everything’. Social and architectural impulses, as well as pragmatic needs, shaped the design and construction of the university. By not acquiring pre-existing buildings, Warwick had the opportunity to make a social statement via its choice of architecture. There was a deliberate commitment to low-key, low-cost modernist materials with no big facades or ornaments.

LINKS: university web-site


Community Relations

Prior to 1964 the space where the University was located was a vast expanse of Warwickshire meadows and farm land. When building began Mike Shattock described the effect as being as though a ‘space ship had landed’ as the white modernist blocks of the library, science and humanities buildings appeared on the landscape. The impact (or multiple, diverse impacts) on the local communities at the time emerged from our readings of the press reports and from Ruth Cherrington’s lovely reflections of being a child growing up on the Canley estate next to the University. The University has continued to expand and the issue of relationships with communities far and wide is integral to its development and identity.

LINKS: Ruth's interview

 Architecture, Art and Affect

[There’s] something about having an architectural centre whose utility really is to uplift your spirits and to give you a focus and to be an emblem of your identity, and I have always thought that Warwick could do with a bit more of that […] [it] makes people walk with more of a swagger […]

In this quote taken from his interview, Hugh Gaston Hall points to a fascinating link between individual and collective identity, and the architecture: his words suggest the emotional effects of the material structure – ‘uplifting spirits’ and the implication of pride evoked by architecture which ‘makes you walk with more of a swagger’. This quote has led to some interesting conversations about the differential emotional and intellectual impact which traditional and modern architectures and art forms might have on different people.

We got something of an alternative perspective from the interview with curator Sarah Shalgosky. Sarah noted the change from the University’s early modernist art which featured the work of young British artists with new ideas about how art should be presented and should reflect its location. The architect Eugene Rosenberg integrated conceptual art into his architectural designs. Rather than ‘lacking’ impact or the potential to cause a ‘swagger’ in the university’s occupants, Sarah talked about the university’s aim of ‘Buying intellectual art for an intellectual place’. The trajectory of curation complemented architectural decisions: the art selected was modern, abstract, challenging, low-cost and privileging up- and- coming British artists. Cyril Barrett from the Philosophy Department wrote that, the art ‘perplexed the residents … and gave food for thought’. The art was seen as mirroring some of the anxieties and tensions of the new universities of the 1960s with their widening access policies and practices and their modern ideas.

LINKS: Readings and Resources


Staff/Student Relations and Student Engagement

One of the most interesting things for us to emerge both from the archives and from the interviews, were the strong opinions and interventions of students in relation to their built environment . We can place the early Warwick students' contestation of the spatial construction and organisation of their emerging university in the context of 1968 and students’ involvement in protests in Paris and elsewhere. Trevor Fisk, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) in 1969, suggests that the physical environment was one stimulus for students to revolt.

In the UK, there had been opposition from the NUS to the creation of new universities from scratch. In part this was because these would 'be sited in rural, or outer-urban, settings, deliberately at variance with the city-centre university pattern which had prevailed for the past century with the Redbricks' (Fisk, 1970: 293). This was certainly true for Warwick, and raised critical questions about the university’s relationship with the local community. The NUS at the time supported comprehensive universities via integration with Local Education Authority colleges rather than new independent structures. For new universities such as Warwick, the NUS was concerned at the lack of a local student population to contest and contribute to the design and construction of new-builds (as of course the students had not yet been recruited).

Although Paris of May ’68 was not enacted by Warwick students in the streets of Coventry or Leamington Spa, the physical environment and the kinds of power relations and hierarchies it supported, were central to students' experience of university and their subsequent dissatisfaction with some aspect of it. In particular, there was concern about the divisions between students and teachers which were fundamental to the design and building of the campus. Hugh Garson Hall’s interview refers to the University’s initial desire to model Warwick on the college system of Oxford or Cambridge. Although his personal feelings were that this would have been positive for developing a feeling of community and belonging, Warwick’s students themselves vetoed this idea in 1968. According to Hugh, the students thought that having colleges was the University’s way of trying to ‘divide and rule’ – separating out the students into colleges so that they wouldn’t have a strong student voice.

There is evidence that students were troubled by the idea of ‘divisions’ between staff and students and between the different functions of the university. There was opposition to what was seen as the manufacturing of these divisions through the architectural forms of the university. One specific protest related to the ‘zones of campus’ which segregated staff and students by dividing the university up into separate administration, social and teaching spaces. The sprawling buildings, built with the intention of growth in years to come, created spatial divisions which mapped onto existing hierarchies and inequalities. Garson Hall told us that,

Circa 1965-66, all the university was on the other site and then once some departments had moved , staff still went back to the other site for lunch. There was a lunch hour. All staff and students ate in their own groups separately.

This chimes with what Fisk (1970) identified amongst the general student population:

Students are uneasy about the notion of educational community and about the place of the teacher. They are uncertain about the isolation and academic single mindedness of their universities. They feel the citing and design of their campuses often aim at reinforcing this sense of separation and undivided purpose ... they feel anxiety when confronted by designs which reinforce the comparative status of teacher and taught. (Fisk, 1970: 294).

And he comments on Warwick in particular:

One new university, Warwick, has been designed with all the students' facilities on one side of the campus, all the teaching and administrative areas on the other. In between there are several hundred yards of 'no man's land'. The whole arrangement seems to have been laid out to facilitate trench warfare between staff and students; the scheme might have been expected to re-inforce feelings of 'them' and 'us' (Fisk, 1970: 294).

There is also reference to Warwick students’ unhappiness with their campus design in written accounts from the university’s architects – Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall (or YRM). They note that:

… the students included the architecture in the objects of their protests and sought to be consulted about the design, something inconceivable to Rosenberg’s authoritarian outlook (Alan Powers, 1992: 56)

Looking back at the student contestations of the built environment perhaps enables us to look at what we have now in a different light. Trevor Fisk, writing in 1970 of the many students due to enter HE in following decade, warns:

If they enter colleges the design of which is totally inadequate to their needs and out of keeping with their aspirations, the blame will rest as much on today's students for their silence, as on the college planners for interpreting that silence as consent (Fisk, 1970: 294).

The last few years has seen an increasing concern with the notion of student engagement throughout the Higher Education sector. There have been various discussions and initiatives centred around increasing student ownership of their higher education experience, whether that be through the shaping of module learning outcomes, increased involvement in the research cultures of their departments/universities or the inclusion of students onto QAA audit teams. We suggest that equally important to these other initiatives surrounding student engagement is the importance of working collaboratively with students in the shaping of their physical environment, from teaching and learning spaces to social areas. That way, we can hope that tomorrow’s students and staff won’t blame us for our silence.

LINKS: Readings and resources


Teaching and Learning Spaces: Change and Continuity

Many of the pictures of classrooms and common room spaces from the 1960s and 1970s look the same, apart from the hairstyles and the fact that in some cases the view from the window now has other buildings rather than hay bales and fields. The ‘traditional classrooms’, where teachers stand at the front and deliver to rows of students, still dominate, although, as Ken notes, the technologies of teaching have changed even if the room layouts remain the same – gone (in most cases) are the chalk boards to be replaced with white boards, smart boards, power point .

Although in the 1960s there was no talk of ‘social learning spaces’ or ‘innovative teaching spaces’ for ‘open space learning’ - all concepts now addressed at Warwick through the development of new classroom and learning facilities – the demand for these kinds of pedagogic activities and relations was in evidence. The pictures show students occupying more informal spaces for what now might be termed social learning.

LINKS: Social Learning space


Struggle, Dissensus and Contradiction: The Contested Idea(l)s of The University

There was not one story to emerge, and many stories contradict each other. The University is not one community, and the buildings reflect and shape the multiple discourses and modes of subjectification and embodiment possible to those who work with/in it. The University’s development is not based on consensus but on struggle and dissensus – a creative, generative force.

LINKS : Readings and resources