The University of York campus (first phase 1963-1965) is one of the most euphoric expressions of British post-war utopianism. Along with Sussex, East Anglia, Warwick, Essex, Kent and Lancaster, it is one of the seven New or “Plateglass” Universities.1 The novelty and fecundity of the new institutions encouraged innovative academic aspirations. The historian Asa Briggs, as a dynamic academic (and later Vice-Chancellor) at the University of Sussex from 1961, for instance, sought to “redraw the map of learning” by dismantling academic boundaries and encouraging interdisciplinarity.2 Concomitantly, the New Universities gave rise to distinctive architectural expressionism: from Denys Lasdun’s ‘Ziggurats’ at UEA, to the dominance of the pedestrian spine at Lancaster (by Shepheard and Epstein), to what Tony Birks described as ‘a giant students’ climbing frame’ in reference to Sir Basil Spence’s monumentality at Sussex.3 The New Universities were subject to considerable national and international attention, even satire – for instance, Malcom Bradbury’s The History Man (1975).4 Most memorably, one correspondent in the Architectural Review declared, with only minor hyperbole, that the New University movement, as it soon came to be described, was ‘as exciting as the cathedral building movement of the early twelfth century’.5
The New Universities were founded in the era of the Robbins Report, a report of the Committee on Higher Education, chaired by Lord Robbins, and published in 1963. While they slightly preceded it in their foundations, the report became synonymous with university reform. The UK had come to recognise its dwindling position compared to higher education provision elsewhere, especially the USA, Germany and the Soviet Union. It boosted its investment and set the path for the establishment of brand-new institutions, giving them an opportunity to redefine what a university is, could, or should be.
Of the seven new institutions that the Robbins era spawned, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in his ever-consequential Buildings of England (1972) singled out York as, ‘the best… visually and structurally’.6 Since then, it has continued to attract the attention of historians. Stefan Muthesius argued that ‘it was with York and its colleges [… that] New University planning and design became an immensely serious issue’, while Andrew Saint observed that ‘Nowhere else [other than York] did concentrated thought about what a university ought to be like in a modern democracy come so close to finding integrated physical expression’. 7
The establishment of a new twentieth-century university in York relied on the city’s civic culture, especially on the York Civic Trust, the Rowntree Trusts, and the indefatigable dignitaries Oliver Sheldon, John West-Taylor and J. B. Morrell. The Trusts initially founded two small centres of learning in 1953—the Institute for Advanced Architectural Studies (closed in 1997), and the Borthwick Institute for Archives. These became key strategic instruments with which the York Academic Trust (itself founded in 1958) could petition the University Grants Committee for a new university in the city. The proposal was approved in April 1960.
The architects Stirrat Johnson-Marshall (1912-1981) and Andrew Derbyshire (1923-2016) of Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners (RMJM), were appointed in 1961-2 to devise the development plan.8 A client-centred evolution at York enabled them, along with the first Vice Chancellor, Lord James of Rusholme (1909-1992) and the university’s first professors, to perfect an academic brief, and to enact it architecturally. The founders’ desire to create a cohesive social and learning society at York, was met by the adoption of a distinctive spatial model: a hybrid college that comprised living, teaching and social spaces interrelated.9 The founders also sought an inter-disciplinary orientation, ‘a meeting place of different aptitudes, skills and specialisations’, and were thus, as Muthesius described it, ‘at the peak of the integrative philosophy of the New University Movement’.10 Furthermore, the founders sought flexibility in the face of future growth. The university was akin to a chain molecule. It could grow indefinitely with the addition of new self-contained colleges, a means of growth that meant that the units could grow sustainably (once the optimum size of 300 for a college had been reached), without damaging the relationship between the parts and the whole.
The university also desired speed in construction and flexibility in the face of future growth as a fail-safe against economic and other vicissitudes. This resulted in an unusual aesthetic that exploited the potential of modular, lightweight systems to take advantage of economies of scale. After all, Johnson-Marshall, ‘an evangelical systems man’, had devised a celebrated prefabricated system for school buildings for Hertfordshire County Council (1946-1947).11 At York, an existing system was adapted, namely the Consortium of Local Authority Special Programme (CLASP). While it provided quality architecture without frills or pretension and within budget, York was at the vanguard of international architectural debate—system building had just been lauded at the Milan Architectural Triennale (1960). As for the panels themselves, Derbyshire had originally wanted to use white and green banding, a ‘Sienna in Yorkshire’, but costs prohibited it.12 Rather, a grey aggregate, dug from the River Trent, was adopted. Derbyshire was ambivalent about the result. He said that while the panels shine on a warm day, they ‘resemble an elephant with eczema’ when they are half wet and half dry in the winter!13
Some of the other campus buildings do not use CLASP, such as the library, the astronautic Central Hall, and the “mushroom’ water tower, an iconic saucer on a concrete tubular support, since demolished. Indeed, Derbyshire described the CLASP as a vernacular, compared to more emblematic buildings which ‘act like a butter cross in a Cotswold town’.14 Generally, the buildings were unassertive, non-monumental, a neutral canvas which the users themselves would bring to life.
It is the walkways, which radiate across the site, that encapsulate the whole vision of the university, since they were designed to encourage informal encounters between members of the university from all faculties. On the one hand, there were efficient routes that enabled what Derbyshire described as York’s ten-minute culture – one could get to any part of the university within that time – passing through all the colleges and departments. These were straight, axial, and covered. But there were also scenic routes, curvilinear paths through the landscape, alternative, more picturesque, where students and staff were encouraged to be reflective. Building on the legacy of the Festival of Britain (1951), furthermore, the campus has always been populated with high quality art enlivening the buildings. This includes distinctive work respectively by the Yorkshire sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Austin Wright, and concrete relief panels by Fred Millett that Pevsner described as ‘restless and incomprehensible’ in reference to their energy and abstraction.15
York’s new buildings were given historic anchorage by the Elizabethan and Victorian Heslington Hall and softened by an intimate sylvan setting, an expression of the English romantic landscape tradition modeled on the Cambridge backs. Designed by Maurice Lee (RMJM’s in-house landscape expert) and the distinguished landscape architect Herbert Francis Clark, the landscaping encouraged a diverse wildfowl population; indeed, peacocks used to strut about the concrete cloisters. But it is the campus lake that, as Elain Harwood put it, is the ‘architectural coup de grâce’.16 It unites the buildings, delights the users, and acts as a balancing reservoir on a waterlogged site.
RMJM’s University of York campus was paternalistic in its ethos, non-hierarchical in its planning, and non-monumental in its architecture. It was a remarkable experiment in mid-twentieth-century living and learning. Concretising (pun intended) its enduring significance, several – but by no means all – of the buildings from the first phase of construction were listed in 2018.17