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How I stopped worrying and learned to love concrete

Every British university campus has one, and sometimes more than more: the often unlovely and usually unloved concrete building put up at some point in the 1960s. Generally neglected and occasionally even unfinished, with steel reinforcing rods still poking out of it, the sixties building might be a hall of residence or a laboratory, a library or lecture room. It rarely features in prospectuses and is never – never ever – used to house the vice chancellor’s office.

Even as these buildings were erected, they proved unpopular. At Leicester, student journalists mocked the ‘Neo-Urinal’ halls of residence. At Leeds, academics complained about their working conditions, as they struggled on in leaky, under-heated, acoustically-compromised offices. That these concrete and plate-glass ‘fish-tanks’ were a prize-winning piece of design only made them angrier.

New universities, entirely built in the 1960s, fared even worse. Some students of the University of East Anglia (UEA) were so unhappy with their home that they were provoked to offensive hyperbole, describing their massive, monumental concrete mega-structure as ‘Auschwitz with carpets’.

And these sixties buildings didn’t need to be concrete to be disliked. At Essex in the late-1960s, the tall, brick towers erected for student accommodation sparked hostility from locals and from staff alike. Asked to come up with an appropriate dedicatee for the latest block, lecturers took a vote; the winning name was Kafka.

These buildings attracted opprobrium for several reasons. They were the product of avant-garde architects working with ambitious vice-chancellors. As such, they were always intended to be striking, even shocking; glimpses of the future rather than examples of staid, conventional taste.

They were also built in unpropitious times. The British building industry wasn’t really fit for purpose and struggled to cope with experimental methods. Worse still, the stop-start of government funding made it all but impossible for universities to plan effectively. Buildings were begun before it was quite clear how they would be used and then completed without many essential services because the money had run out. In many cases, of course, they were simply left unfinished, as ambitious – perhaps over-ambitious – projects were curtailed by a sudden stop in their financing.

These financial problems would prove particularly troublesome as the sixties buildings aged: an issue made all the worse by cutbacks and spending freezes in the 1970s and 1980s. Seeking economies, and thinking little of the long term, universities pared their maintenance budgets beyond the bone, with predictable results. Buildings and fittings decayed – and failed. Walls cracked, tiles flew off; in Kent, Leicester, and elsewhere, some structures actually collapsed.

Ziggurat halls of residence buildings, University of East Anglia by blank space via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]
Ziggurat halls of residence buildings, University of East Anglia by blank space. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Small wonder, then, that these buildings have proved to be an ambiguous inheritance for most universities. Intentionally assertive and inadvertently problematic, they have even been seen as a positive handicap for recruitment, with numerous surveys suggesting that potential students still look down on ‘sad’, ‘concrete’ institutions which they continue to characterize as the ‘worst’ universities.

How, then, have I learned to love the loveless concrete that characterizes so many of our campuses? Why do I believe that we should all come to embrace our sixties buildings?

Well, in part, I think these projects are worth celebrating because they are monuments to a very different understanding of the university: a moment when the state was persuaded to support higher education for its own sake. It was a short-lived episode, and one that was always compromised by the imperatives of the Cold War and the rather generalized belief that the economy would be aided by growing numbers of graduates. But the idea that universities were worth building because they would elevate the cultural life of the nation; the notion that higher education is a more than instrumental, more than solely individual good: these were noble aspirations and their loss is a sad one.

It’s worth recalling, too, that many of the sixties buildings were the work of front-rank architects: international names whose achievements are now increasingly celebrated. Leicester possesses a tower by James Stirling; UEA was designed by Denys Lasdun. Campuses all across the country are host to some of the greatest examples of Brutalist architecture in the world. As fashions change, and as the wheel of taste turns back to this heroic period of British architecture, I confidently predict that many of these neglected buildings will become tourist attractions.

Above all, as a historian, it seems to me that these buildings provide a most wonderful way of understanding universities – and their architecture – more generally. Their ambition, their utopianism is more than matched by some of the buildings built before them and many of those built since. That’s what universities do. Campuses are always landscapes of idealism; shrines, in a sense, to how one generation imagines the future should be.

The failure to complete these projects is also telling: not just because it speaks of how priorities change and funding streams are diverted, but also because it shows how succeeding generations turn their back on what their predecessors did. Master-plan is succeeded by master-plan; vision by revision. Each time, the university tried to build its way out of trouble by rejecting the past and starting again.

This, in the end, is why universities find their sixties buildings so embarrassing; just as, in the 1960s, they found their interwar architecture so shaming. And in the 1920s, it was their Victorian homes that they shunned and sought to hide. It’s also why so little has been written about university architecture. Universities try – sometimes very hard – to forget. It’s important that they’re not allowed to, not least because of what we might learn from the successes, and the failures, of the past.

E.C. Stoner Building, University of Leeds by Mtaylor848. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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