Ladsun, Landscapes and Leicester
Written By Eddy Rhead - Co-founder the Modernist Society
What do you think of when you think of Leicester? What do you mean, you don’t think of Leicester?
Well, on the odd occasion you may think about Leicester you may think of Gary Lineker, maybe? Or perhaps that most stylish of 70s bands Showaddywaddy? David Attenborough is from Leicester as is, of course, his brother Richard.
Did you know though that Admiral was founded in Leicester, originally as underwear manufacturer but later branching out into sportswear?
Leicester has its fair share of claims to fame but it is to the university campus we are heading now - in search of some tasty Brutalism.
If you have read my previous blog post about Brutalism and its short but slightly troubled history, you’ll already know about some of the originators and pioneers of the movement.
At Leicester University the list of architects responsible for buildings on the campus reads like a Who’s Who of British post war architects and contains one of, arguably, the most important post war buildings in the UK. That is the Engineering Building by James Stirling and James Gowan, and we shall look at more detail at that building in another blog post but for the purposes of this particular post we shall be looking at one of Brutalism’s most talented and well renowned architects who has a very prominent and imposing building on the campus.
The campus of the University of Leicester is self-contained and sits just south of the city centre. As you turn into the campus the first large building that confronts you is the Charles Wilson Building, designed in 1966 by Denys Lasdun. Although one of Lasdun’s lesser-known works it is still a fantastic bit of Brutalism and Lasdun would go on to be one of ‘stars’ of Brutalism in the UK producing some of the movements most defining buildings. As I talked about in the previous blog the best Brutalism is where there is good detailing and a skilled use of materials. Lasdun was the master of detail and his deft, almost sublime, use of concrete elevates his work into the top league of post war architecture.
The Charles Wilson has many of the elements that distinguish Lasdun’s work. Strong massing of the forms - the building actually looks like two buildings artfully forced together with the main accommodation block surrounding a larger service tower that seems to sprout out of the middle and head upwards. Thankfully Lasdun’s skills mean the different elements are so well proportioned it does not look uncomfortable or jarring. The Charles Wilson building may not to be to everyone’s taste and Lasdun, much like Brutalism in general always divided opinions.
Lasdun was born in 1914, as was Admiral funnily enough, and before the war was part of the famous Tecton group, a radical group of architects who were instrumental in introducing Modernism to a sceptical and generally very conservative British public. After the war Lasdun started to develop his own style and as the New Brutalists were just finding their feet Lasdun designed, in 1957, Keeling House - an early example of high-rise social housing. The building consists of four wings each emanating from a central core. Lasdun wanted to replicate the intimacy of the Victoria terraces that many of the residents had been rehoused from. Lasdun gave consideration for the residents wellbeing and tried to create a real sense of place as he insisted that good architecture could improve people’s lives. This notion was perhaps lost by later architects and planners and contributed to giving Modernism and Brutalism a bad name.
Keeling House announced Lasdun to the world and prestigious work followed. In 1964 Lasdun designed a building for the Royal College of Physicians that would seal his reputation. A very traditional client steeped in history coupled with a site near Regents Park that was in the middle of a grand Georgian terrace doesn’t perhaps immediately make you think of Brutalist architecture, but Lasdun produced a stunning and radical building that would become one of the very few Grade 1 listed post war buildings in the UK. The upper rectangular volumes, only occasionally punctuated by slit windows, float on very slim supports. Lasdun’s control of space and light transforms a seemingly massive and solid bunker like building on the outside into a flowing and airy one inside. The attention to detail and the materials used, white marble, glass mosaic tiles, polished brass etc elevates this building into a class of its own and is truly one of Britain’s best Modernist buildings.
Whilst completing the Royal College of Physicians Lasdun was also working on a project at the University of East Anglia. The so called ‘Teaching Wall’ was completed in 1970 and is perhaps Lasdun’s most unique building and therefore one of its most photographed. Lasdun not only wanted to concentrate student accommodation and teaching spaces together he also wanted to preserve and enhance the landscape in which the building is placed. To do this Lasdun came up with a ziggurat design - a stack of terraces that step back as they rise. Not only did this design respond to the undulating landscape it also allowed Lasdun to provide very efficient and logical accommodation for the students. Each student flat had large opening windows, generous communal balconies and a view out onto the surrounding countryside. With the aid of raised walkways students could easily and quickly travel from their dorm to teaching blocks. Once again great attention to detail and masterful use of materials mean Lasdun’s work at the UEA is widely celebrated and despite the changing nature of student life and 50 years of wear and tear is still some of the best and most unique student accommodation in the country.
Lasdun’s crowning glory however was to be one of his last works - the Royal National Theatre on London’s South Bank.
A building that has divided opinion even before it was built, and Prince Charles once compared it to a nuclear power station. In the writer’s opinion however, any building that Prince Charles does not like almost certainly gets my seal of approval. Once again Lasdun was uncompromising in his plans for the building and his design is straight out of the Brutalist playbook. A deconstruction of the volumes, with verticals expressing some of the internal working of the theatres inside and strong horizontal masses enhanced by deeply recessed glass facades is classic Form Follows Function. Another Brutalist box ticked is his use of exposed concrete for pretty much the entire exterior and even continuing to some of the interior spaces. A respect for the urban landscape and luxurious and humanist internal spaces has gained this building many fans over its lifetime and, despite its haters, it has become a much-cherished landmark. An unusual fan base arose almost by accident.
The undercroft of the building was often seen as an intimidating and unwelcome place but became a haven for skateboarders, who relished the hard surfaces and angles. They adopted a space that was often seen as a failure and when there were plans to close the undercrofts and ‘solve’ the problem that was deemed to exist there was a successful campaign to retain the space and recognise it a useful and essential public space.
Denys Lasdun - a Master of Detail, one of Brutalism’s Big Hitters and Accidental Skateboarding Hero.
In the next blog we shall be returning to Leicester University to look at the incomparable Engineering Building by James Stirling and James Gowan.