Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Negotiating Brutalist Space at the University of Leeds (part 1)

Stone, Stoner, Stonest

The E C Stoner Building at the University of Leeds was named after Edmund Clifton Stoner (1899-1968) who was a theoretical physicist and taught at the University. The building holds a blue plaque which is dedicated to him. An archive of his paperwork is held in the university library. Stoner left the university in 1963.

Surprisingly, the 1960 and 1963 campus Development Plans of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon do not include a section solely dedicated to this largest teaching block on the campus, even though there are provisions for it in the 1960 plan. Built in 1962, at that time the E C Stoner Building had the longest corridor in Europe (as part of what the university calls the Red Route), at over a fifth of a mile long. It became known as ‘Physics/Admin’ in the 1960s, but now tends to be called ‘E C Stoner’ or just ‘Stoner’. The building received Grade II listed status in 2010 and still houses the Physics Department and administrative facilities, alongside Computing and some offices for other departments.

Above is a section of a photograph of the architect’s model of the campus. The E. C. Stoner Building is the long narrow building that can be seen extending from the far left of the image.

Like many of the glass and concrete Brutalist buildings, the E C Stoner Building tends to polarise people. Appearing in the 1960 plan as one of many low-rise long buildings, in actual space it appears much longer than it looks on the plan above. Described by Owen Hatherley as “the aesthetics of hell” he places Brutalism within a long history going back to 18C urban Britain based on how industrialisation subjected workers bodies to the factories and foundries that hired them. (2008: 19-20) Citing the Barbican of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (CPB), and also the architects the Smithsons who apparently coined the term ‘brutalist’ (and also designed other educational spaces), Hatherley describes the paradox of Brutalism as “the everyday style for the use of the proletariat […] and at the same time creat[ing] avant garde shock images” (2008: 31).

E C Stoner has multiple entrances and an underpass which allows vehicles to move about the space uninterrupted. The two main entrances are from either a large set of steps on the South or a gradual ramp on the North. On the South side is a large open gravelled space with trees and bike stands. This open area has the potential to be used as a piazza, rather than a short-cut to the sports centre. It might be the surface area that discourages congregation - a mixture of sand and gravel which is very dusty and not pleasant underfoot.

To appreciate its length and size the building is best viewed from one end (see above). Horizontal lines of concrete separate the lines of glassed windows, which are unbroken in the absence of any vertical lines at all. The building extends into the horizon of one’s view, disappearing into the surrounding cityscape. This is the outward face of the E C Stoner which overlooks the new university sports centre, the hospital and Leeds city itself. Reyner Banham describes both the visual and functional aspect of Brutalist architecture as requiring “that the building should be an immediately apprehensible visual entity; and that the form grasped by the eye should be confirmed by experience of the building in use.” (1955: 358) Outside of any surrounding campus space, the building would look like an office block, not untypical of many built in Britain around the same period, especially in the public sector. The architecture designed at the University of Liverpool by Edwin Maxwell Fry between 1955 and 1960 also has a similar Functionalist office block style aesthetic, even though his buildings there are not Brutalist but Formalist, and use brick rather more than concrete. This Formalist style was considered to reflect some kind of nostalgia for factories and workshops.

The other side of the E C Stoner building is much more utilitarian-looking, with a car park attached to it with more teaching/office space atop the car park. On this side the huge length is lost by the breaking up of the building with the perpendicular car park/office extension, attached by a small glass covered walkway. One, however, does not get the true sense of how the building functions until one enters it. Appearing as a straight-forward and simple structure on the outside, once inside the corridors of the interior you feel closed-in and disoriented, especially once away from any sight of the outside. There are no large open foyers in the very Functionalist interior of the E C Stoner Building, like there are in the Lanchester and Lodge period buildings on the University of Leeds campus, such as the Houldsworth Building which houses engineering, a Beaux-Arts classicist design.

This blog continues with Part 2: Inside, Outside, Upside, Upshot

Other University of Leeds architecture-related blogs:
Deconstructing the Ziff
Space-Age or Quasi-Totalitarianism
The Sound of the Sixties

Banham, Reyner. 'The New Brutalism', Architectural Review, (1955), 354-361.
Hatherley, Owen. 2008. Militant Modernism (Ropley: Zero Books).

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