National recognition for the University’s 1960’s architecture

Dr Duncan Marks takes a look into what a bus shelter in West Dorset and our very own Central Hall have in common…

It may sound like the start of a joke, but what does a sculpture of Robin Hood and his merry men in Nottingham, a thatched bus shelter in West Dorset, and the University of York’s Central Hall all have in common? The answer is they are among 952 new entries added in 2018 to the National Heritage List for England (NHLE), a sort of corpus of the best of England’s historic buildings and places.

A postcard of Langwith College courtyard taken two years after having been opened by the Queen in October 1965

What else is on the list?

Other new entries on the NHLE in 2018 include the University’s Derwent and (former) Langwith colleges, one of the covered walkways, two sculptures by Austin Wright on campus, and the landscaping for much of the original campus. Unlike Heslington Hall, which is already a Grade II* Listing due to its C16 pedigree, these recent additions are the first to recognise the modern fabric of the university since it was founded under the auspices of York Civic Trust in 1963.

The look and form of York’s original campus has long divided opinion, so the recent listing decision that these structures hold historical and architectural merit of national importance is not without controversy. Historic England consider Central Hall to be the university’s “architectural tour de force”; Derwent and Langwith of importance for its “innovative combination of teaching and social facilities as well as residential accommodation in a single college” and being “the first British university buildings to be erected using the CLASP prefabricated system” of concrete panels, and the campus landscape worthy of listing because its “refined design successfully integrates a series of status buildings within a carefully designed landscape.

Being on the NHLE provides some degree of statutory protection against demolition or undue alteration. However, such protection also raises a number of important and interconnected issues regarding: the University’s heritage credentials and its place in the history of Higher Education in the UK; the uncertain fate of the ‘non-listed’ parts of the original campus, and whether the listing of a university campus is desirable or perhaps restrictive to its evolution as an ambitious and progressive university in the C21.

Central Hall – 1960’s

‘New Universities’

The importance of the University of York and its original campus should be understood in the wider context of the 1960’s building boom of UK universities, when post-war policy favoured and funded an expansion of Higher Education provision. Seven so-called ‘New Universities’ were established in England during the 1960s, at Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Norwich, Sussex, Warwick and York (sometimes referred to as the ‘Shakespeare’ universities due to the locations being names of characters in Shakespeare’s plays).

The New Universities gave greater opportunities to study. This included students from lower economic-social backgrounds, ethnic minorities and women, whom hitherto had been marginalised by existing institutions. New Universities also experimented in the use of plate-glass and concrete as building materials. It made them distinctive in aesthetic, form and ethos compared to the older civic (‘Red Brick’) universities and Oxbridge. Writing in 1964, the Architectural Review went so far as to consider the “great new university movement” of the day to be “somewhat similar to, and perhaps as exciting as, the cathedral building movement of the early twelfth century”. While most people would still choose York Minster over Derwent College, it captures the exhilaration created by the New Universities and helps to understand the recent Listing decision.

Having key parts of the campus added to the NHLE can therefore be considered an important milestone in the history of the University of York. It might even be seen as marking a maturing reputation for the institution. Once among the youngest of the ‘Russell Group’ of leading UK universities, it now has become an institution with a recognised historical campus to go alongside its already established pedagogical and research prowess.

Central Hall with Vanbrugh College (left). The latter was built in the 1960s using the CLASP system. Credit Matt Grum

What Next?

The future fate of the other original 1960’s buildings and features on the campus is however far less certain. Universities are similar to other operational facilities, such as hospitals or military bases, in that they do not lend themselves well to the kind of statutory protection that comes from being on the NHLE. Universities need to be able to transform, expand and meet new directions and challenges in C21 learning. Listing key 1960’s buildings on the campus could now constrict the University of York’s ability to transform and progress. With their flat roofs prone to leak and poor environmental performance, will there be a new purpose for the ageing CLASP buildings? Do buildings designed for 1960’s methods of teaching have sufficient flexibility to be adapted to the learning needs of the C21? The fate of and threat to iconic 1960’s buildings at other English universities, such as the Maths Tower at Manchester, Southside Halls of Residence at Imperial College London, and Dunelm House at Durham – suggest otherwise.

Conversely, continuity is important to many alumni. It helps maintain identification with the university. Tangible physical forms, such as buildings and landscapes, have the ability to evoke memories of life and learning; where friendships formed; marriages made; businesses and organisations established, where some of the happiest of days occurred. Indeed, the overlapping of the educational, social and personal, and sited all in one space, was at the heart of the university’s original collegiate ethic, as outlined in the University of York Development Plan (1962). Any removal of the campus’s historic buildings and landscape therefore risks lessening the emotional association for former users.

The earliest 1960’s University of York prospectuses are today fascinating historical documents in their own right. They reveal the University’s pride in the latest campus buildings. Somewhere along the way, pride in the material form of those original buildings and the planned campus has weakened. Be it the beige-ness of the CLASP buildings, the lake with its tetchy geese, or the slightly dystopian, spaceship-like Central Hall, these are key features that help make the university distinct with an unmistakeable form and landscape. Now nationally recognised on the NHLE, and with the University’s sixtieth anniversary approaching, this is the perfect opportunity to become proud once more of the University’s fine-but-slightly-weird 1960’s campus.