Gowan In The Right Direction
Written By Eddy Rhead - Co-founder the Modernist Society
In this third and final blog we return to Leicester and its university campus to look at one the most important post war buildings in the UK - The Engineering Building completed in 1963 to the designs of James Stirling and James Gowan.
Stirling and Gowan were loosely affiliated to the New Brutalists and their first considerable work - a housing development at Langham House Close in Richmond upon Thames with its use of stock brick and exposed concrete - won them plaudits within the architectural community. Both born in Scotland, Gowan was the more studious and considered of the two and Stirling was the more forthright and often downright difficult one. Despite having not built a huge amount together, riding on the crest of the waves made by their work at Langham House Close they managed to win a very prestigious job for a new Engineering building at Leicester University.
Presented with a difficult enclosed site and a client with very specific needs Stirling and Gowan rose to the challenge. One of the first things the Engineering Department stipulated was that it needed a large water tank and this needed to be at least 100 feet off the ground so the water could be used, at pressure, for hydraulic experiments at ground level. They also required a very large set of workshops that had to very flexible and could be adapted for changing experiments. As well as this the workshops had to be naturally lit but without direct sunlight as this could interfere with some delicate experiments. Another demand, one that may or may not have sent shivers down the spines of Stirling and Gowan, was that exposed concrete could not be used on the exterior. As exposed concrete was one of the main weapons of choice for the New Brutalists this may have deterred Stirling and Gowan but considering they never fully acknowledged themselves as Brutalists themselves it may not have been so much of an issue for them.
To solve the problems that the clients had presented to them Stirling and Gowan stepped up and delivered some innovative and elegant solutions, whilst not abandoning any of their precocious architectural ideals. The building is essentially split into three. The lecture theatres, fully expressed on the exterior of the building in true Brutalist style and clad in red tiles, are at ground level and topped by a very solid 4 storey teaching block. The tall, tower element, with teaching rooms and office accommodation rises above it. The required 100-foot elevated water tower was placed on the top of the tower and therefore that particular problem was solved. The tower is wrapped by extensive glazing, only broken by a service tower clad in red brick. Red engineering brick was chosen instead of the exposed concrete the client had forbidden and befits the studies going on within.
These two elements present a very bold and imposing presence with the campus and on the skyline, but the real triumph is with the workshops.
Like most engineering buildings there are no windows but plenty of natural light was needed. Stirling and Gowan achieved this with a complex set of roof lights. Because of the constraints of the site the good north light needed could only be achieved by turning the diamond shaped roof lights on a 45-degree angle. This not only achieved an architectural solution but created a beautiful and exciting sculptural structure. Harsh direct sunlight had to be avoided so the architects used two types of glass in the skylights to break up and soften the light. A translucent ply glass with a layer of fibre glass and an opaque glass coated with aluminium. In daylight it is difficult to notice the two types of glass but at night, when lit from within, the distinction is clear and only adds to the sculptural quality of the building. The glass roof structure sits on a heavy brick base, again in red brick, which contrasts with the structure above, but links the workshops aesthetically to the other elements of the building.
The Engineering Building was designed for engineers and not up tight and precious academics, so many of the services and finishes are exposed and industrial in nature, once again ticking the Brutalist box of being true to the materials. Although not conforming to many of the Brutalist stereotypes that became associated with the style, the Engineering Building was widely applauded by architects and critics of the day. Although clearly influenced by Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright it was clear that Stirling and Gowan had come up with something special, original and unique. Its reputation and influence only grew over the years and was Grade II* listed in 1993 and is widely considered one of the most important post war buildings in Britain.
Not long after Leicester the Gowan and Stirling partnership split up and they had very differing careers. Gowan did some modest work in the UK and abroad but spent much of his time teaching. Stirling, a much more forceful personality, went on to be a huge worldwide success and , despite rejecting the label, became much more known for a Post-Modernist style of architecture. His firm did considerable work in the United States, almost exclusively university buildings, and they designed several high profile and prestigious museums in Germany during the 1980’s. The Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, which Stirling designed with his new architectural partner Michael Wilford and which opened in 1984, is often held up as epitomising the Post Modern style that dominated the 1980’s and 1990’s. Stirling and Wilford worked on several important UK cultural institutions including Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool. It was during the early stages of designing a new art centre in Salford, The Lowry, that James Stirling died, and Michael Wilford went on to finish the building himself.
Although Stirling became, along with Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, one of a new breed of British ‘starchitects’ and built highly prestigious buildings all over the world it is perhaps the Engineering Building at Leicester that was his finest. Its design still looks radical and relevant today and has become something of a place of pilgrimage for architecture nerds. It is well worth a visit next time you are in the area (if you are an architecture nerd obviously).
James Gowan and James Stirling in front of their Engineering Building at Leicester University for Which they've won the Reynolds Memorial Award For Architecture 1965. © Douglas Hess
James Gowan and James Stirling 1962 © Sandra Lousada