Way back in 1972 the nation thought fit to celebrate its Modern University Buildings, rightly so, as many campuses represented the very best of the era’s architecture.
Leicester was foremost in this innovative use of C20 constructions.
The Attenborough Building is the tallest building on the campus, and houses arts and humanities departments.
The building comprises three distinct elements: an 18-storey tower block containing 270 offices and tutorial rooms; a low-rise building, known within the University as the Attenborough Seminar Block, containing seminar rooms and computing facilities; and an underground area housing two large lecture theatres and the University Film Theatre.
It was designed by Arup Associates and constructed between 1968 and 1970, with Ove Arup as the chief engineers.
The university’s development plan at the time called for two other similar towers, but these were never built.
The building was named after Frederick Attenborough, who was principal of the then University College from 1932 until 1951, and father of Richard and David Attenborough. By the time of the opening ceremony Frederick was elderly and frail, so the building was opened on his behalf by his youngest son John.
Opened in 1963 and widely regarded as one of the most architecturally important buildings of its era, the Engineering Building at Leicester is utterly distinctive.
Between them, architects James Gowan and James Stirling, plus engineer Frank Newby, created a unique piece of modern architecture designed around both the specific needs of the Engineering Department.
Atop the two cantilevered lecture theatres sit two joined towers containing labs and offices, their design inspired by the superstructure of an aircraft carrier. The rippling ‘waves’ of the two large glass roofs, angled at 45 degrees to the towers, face north to provide illumination without direct sunlight – which could affect delicate instruments.
There are actually two types of glass in the roof: translucent ply-glass with an inner layer of fibreglass, and opaque glass coated with aluminium. The distinction between the two only becomes noticeable at night when the building is illuminated.
The building’s walls are constructed of red Accrington brick and red Dutch tiles. Atop the taller tower is a water tank to provide hydraulic pressure, while the corner of the shorter tower is cambered to avoid overhanging part of Victoria Park. Within the ground floor workshop space, which is partitionable to provide flexibility, the floor is a series of concrete slabs that can be removed to provide foundations for machinery as required.
Visually stunning it may be, practical too, but the complexity of its design makes the Engineering Building very difficult – and hence expensive to keep in good repair, a situation exacerbated by the restrictions of its Grade II* listing.
Like Kahn at Philadelphia or Rudolph in New Haven, Stirling and Gowan at Leicester have given future architects and building committees a qualitative solution that can form a challenge for future efforts. They were not, themselves, forced into the strait-jacket of a local modernist cliché that was already established on the far side of the campus, and they refrained from setting up a rival one on their own quarter of the site-one which would have only required undoing at some future time. Instead, the architects addressed themselves to the immediate demands of the programme with devotion and respect.
Charles Wilson Building
Sir Charles Haynes Wilson was a Scottish political scientist and university administrator. As Principal of University College Leicester, he led the institution to university status in 1957 and served as the first Vice-Chancellor of the new University of Leicester, before becoming Principal of the University of Glasgow in 1961.
The building was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun in the brutalist style, and completed in 1963.
It is Category B listed.
It is the university’s main social and catering building, and is licensed as a venue for civil weddings and civil partnerships.