The Leicester Engineering Faculty Architecture Essay


The Leicester Engineering faculty and Free Berlin University are both seen to be iconic and innovative buildings, both of which were built at a time where young architects were attempting to replace the formalism of modern architecture with a new, anti-bourgeois, more honest style called New Brutalism. This style was based on a socialist utopian ideology and usually encompassed the use of repetitive geometrical shapes and the exposure of the buildings functions.

The movement was pioneered by Le Corbusier, and was given a name in 1954 by Peter and Alison Smithson from the French word "béton brut," which means "raw concrete." The Smithson's were part of a group called "Team X" which consisted of a number of Architects who came together to 'reconceptualise the methods and ideology of architectural design and turn it away from its functionalist origin; as well as aiming to develop a more psychological and phenomenological basis for the development of form.' (Art and Culture, 2009)

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Among this group of Architects were Shadrach Woods, Georges Candilis, Alexis Josic and Manfred Schiedhelm. This ensemble of talented individuals won an international competition in 1963 to build a new campus for the philological institute in Berlin. After careful consideration, they came up with a masterplan of the new institute, which was to be a two storey high cluster of buildings and would be held together by internal walkways and pedestrian streets. There were great expectations for this building, with the members being from Team X and Candilis and Woods having worked for Le Corbusier in the past.

James Gowan and James Stirling were also greatly influenced by Le Corbusier but wanted to 'further development of the modernism he had propagated'. (Walmsley, 1988) They were also influenced by the work of Peter and Alison Smithson and incorporated their influences into the design of the Leicester Engineering faculty. They aimed to create architecture that was relevant to the time period, much like Team X, and initiated a new trend of using brick and exposed concrete.

The design of the Leicester Engineering Building was first proposed in 1959, when Stirling and Gowan were given the commission to create a new Engineering faculty. They had a limited budget, with a site at the back of the campus.

(Canniffe and Jones, 2007) stated that their main influence was from the way warehouses were constructed, with visible materials and abstract forms. Although this interest in unadorned structures was already present in Modernist architecture of the time, Stirling and Gowan were also fascinated by the underlying functional principles of the building and deemed it appropriate to make a structural demonstration out of an engineering building.

The client specifically requested a building which did not have a facade primarily of concrete, and stressed that flexibility was imperative in the design as it was likely that the workshop spaces would be rearranged. It was also requested that these workshops should be north lit by natural light. Stirling and Gowan therefore created the subdivisions to be non load bearing so they could be reorganized without touching the skin. As the site stood 45° to north, and it being impossible to arrange the building on a north-south axis due to the restricted area, the only solution to obtain precise north light was to turn the roof to run diagonally across the plan. (McKean, 1994) [See Figure.1: Site plan]

The building was primarily designed based on the section and the fact that there would be a movement of up to three hundred students and staff. There would be two hundred on the ground floor level, with this number gradually falling to about fifty on the fifth floor of the building, to four for each of the upper three levels of staff rooms. Therefore, a section was produced according to the occupancy of each floor, with the circulation floors decreasing in area towards the top. (McKean, 1994) [See Figure.2: Section BB]

The building is faced in red brick, tiles and glass. As they were not able to have any bare concrete as a facade, all of the in-situ concrete, including ceilings and floors, were clad in red tile. The concrete which was used as the load-bearing frame was clad with brick. It was stated by Ian Abley [2004] that "there is a seemingly conscious effort at reversing the roles of materials away from their traditional interpretations." Brick has been used as a cladding material, when it is normally seen as load-bearing and at time is seen as "paper thin" whilst glass is seen as solid.

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The workshop section of the building is covered with plyglass and is used as cladding both for the roof and walls and the lecture theatres are plenum-ventilated, lined with fibrous plaster and cantilevered using the weight of the above floors.

In Terms of planning, Canniffe and Jones [2007] explained that the starting point for the building was a ten foot module which ran consistently through the plan and section. This grid was to make the construction logical and to put a controlling frame on the composition. [See Figure. 3: Ground Floor Plan]

The Free Berlin University was designed to link institute and city and was similarly planned and constructed using a grid and was loosely based on Louis Kahn's proposal plan for traffic movement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kahn attempted to "diagram the urban fabric according to the initial structure of movement." (Tzonis, 1969) The aim of the grid, both in the Berlin University and in the Leicester Engineering building is to provide circulation and is a technique in which to weave together linear paths.

The use of the grid created a complex design and Williams (1970) likened the building to a "modern version of the Kasbah with an almost labyrinth character of continuous spaces punctured by courtyards and terraces," (which can be seen in the floor plan and sections) and pointed out that the "thing-subject spaces" were entirely dominated by the "people spaces." It was intentionally designed in this way to encourage social interaction and communication, which was the predominant aim, rather than the design being based purely on function.[See Figures 4 & 5]

The Berlin University was the first building in Germany after the Second World War to use an industrialised building process. Instead of in-situ construction, the facade was completely prefabricated. The horizontal cladding modules of the facade were either 70cm or 113cm wide and had 4cm joints. (Architects Journal 2005) This, however, was a major setback in the design, as water was able to penetrate through the facade, resulting in corrosion and rust.

The whole building was built using a system of concrete-encased steel columns. These were simply prefabricated reinforced concrete slabs bolted to I section steel beams. [See Figure 6] With these columns being the principle load bearing aspects of the construction, flexibility was simple and quick changes in departmental layout were possible.

The most evident similarity in both buildings, apart from the fact that they are both built in a New Brutalist style, is the employment of flexibility in the design and use. Both buildings were able to be rearranged internally, with only the outer skin being load-bearing, and the internal walls subject to change when necessary.

At first, one would think that another similarity lay in the prefabrication of elements of both buildings. However, the Leicester University building employs a different type of prefabrication than the Berlin University. The Berlin University was built in a "production to stock" method which means that the components are prefabricated without any previous knowledge about the design or type of building that was to be produced. The Leicester University, on the contrary, was built in a "production to order" method, with the components being prefabricated for a particular building design and not prepared in mass. (Abley, 2004) Another similarity, although not a positive one, was the fact that asbestos was found in both buildings.

A major factor of both buildings is the idea of circulation. Stirling [1994] pointed out that this was the "only consistent aesthetic element of the building," with these circulation spaces continuous with the outdoors. This use of circulation however was criticised as being excessive with "compromised room usage inherent in the 'plan libre.'" [Kean 1994]

The fact that circulation was imperative in the Berlin University is evident from the design of the building. The whole plan is based on the idea of circulation, and the social movement of the occupants, with students and citizens being asked to use the building as a network of real streets as places of communication and interaction.

In both buildings, however, more so in the Berlin University, this notion of public circulation has been taken too far, with it impeding rational design. The design of the Berlin University especially has been concentrated far too much on social interaction and functionality has been almost completely forgotten. Although the circulation spaces in the Leicester Engineering building were said to be too excessive, there still remained a high degree of functionality and rationality in the design.

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In conclusion, although it is not apparent from first glance, when studied in more depth, it seems as if both buildings are far more similar than they primarily seem. This is chiefly due to the method of construction, using prefabricated materials, the flexibility of the interior design and the importance of public circulation.

The Leicester Engineering Faculty seems to be a more successful project than the Berlin University, purely because its design was more sustainable. The Berlin University was far too complex. It had no hierarchy to the plan whatsoever and was far too disorganized and chaotic. Although the building was intended to be a "city within a city," it still lacked the urban context that the Leicester Engineering building had, with its site and context not being taken into account as much as it should have. In 1990, Foster and Partners were hired to correct all the faults of the university, which included the technical and organisational errors.

Although the Leicester Engineering building was critiqued as not being energy efficient, minimal changes have been made to its original plan, therefore proving that Stirling and Gowan's design was superior.


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