SHA 2013: The University of Leicester

The Engineering Building, Attenborough Tower, and Charles Wilson Building at the University of Leicester

In contrast to many of SHA’s previous conferences, much of the 2013 conference program, including the opening reception, public archaeology events, plenary and academic sessions, will take place outside the confines of a hotel, on the campus of the University of Leicester.

The Royal Charter that created the University of Leicester was granted in 1957, but the university inhabits a much older site. The university’s principal building was constructed in 1837 as the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum (which will be the subject of a separate blog post later in the year). The asylum was closed in 1907 and the building remained vacant until the outbreak of the First World War, when the building as put to use as the 5th Northern General Military Hospital, for the treatment of soldiers injured at the Western Front.

The Fielding Johnson Building, formerly the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum

After the war the building and grounds were purchased by Thomas Fielding Johnson (1828-1921), a local businessman and philanthropist, and presented to Leicester Council for the establishment of a University College, which would act as a living memorial  to those who lost their lives in the First World War. This is still reflected in the University’s motto Ut Vitam Habeant – ‘so that they may have life’.

In 1957 the University College became a University in its own right, and was able to award its own degrees, rather than the external degrees of the University of London. The establishment of the University can be seen in the context of the expansion of the provision of education in Britain after the Second World War; secondary (post-11) education was reformed, and government funding for colleges and universities was increased. Like most other British towns and cities, Leicester saw an increased demand for university education. The need for more teaching and research space on the campus saw something of a building spree, and some of the most prominent architects of the time were commissioned to design new facilities. Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews, blogging as ‘Jones the Planner‘, have written an assessment of the architecture of Leicester University here.

Charles Wilson Building

Sir Denys Lasdun was a leading figure among the ‘brutalist’ school of architects; his most famous work is the National Theatre in London. In 1961 he was commissioned to design an iconic building for the University of Leicester, initially conceived as a six-storey structure. Additional funding during construction led to the addition of a further four storeys before completion in 1966, resulting in the building’s unique shape.

Attenborough Tower and Seminar Block

Eighteen stories tall and perched on top of one of the few significant hills in the City of Leicester, the Attenborough Tower can be seen from miles away and the views from its top floor (currently used as offices for the School of Archaeology and Ancient History’s research students) are spectacular, extending far into the county. Originally planned as the first of three towers, the Attenborough was designed by Arup Associates and opened in 1970. It is named after Frederick Attenborough (1887-1973), Principal of the University College from 1931 to 1951, who lived on campus with his family, including his famous sons David and Richard. The Attenborough Tower contains one of the last working paternoster lifts in Britain (although delegates should note that the paternoster is not a toy!).

The Engineering Building

Designed in 1959 and constructed in 1963, the Department of Engineering is probably the most distinctive and famous building on campus and is Grade II* listed. It was designed by James Stirling (after whom the Stirling Prize for Architecture is named) and James Gowan as part of the ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture. Since then, scores of articles and at least one book have been written about the Engineering Building and in 2008 the Daily Telegraph included it in a list of ‘the 50 most inspiring buildings in Britain’, calling Stirling and Gowan’s unique design “a declaration of war against the predominant culture of dour functionalism.”

[Image 1 CC BY-SA 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons]

[Image 2 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Via Flickr]