As it stands today, the King’s Manor site can be traced back to 1480. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the buildings were retained by the crown and assigned to the Council of the North. Later, the Manor was in use by the Stuarts on their long trips to Scotland, but more recently and prior to its current occupation by the University of York, the Manor housed the Yorkshire School for the Blind.1 Each form and material, and every addition and amendment, tell one part or another of this rich history. It’s visible, too, woven through every floor and façade, like an architectural marble cake. With this constantly evolving and indeed grand history in mind, what could Sir Bernard Feilden’s Tutorial Block, completed in 1964, contribute to this quaint and mostly medieval site?2
Patrick Nuttgens, the architect, academic and first professor of York’s Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, whose portrait still hangs in the Huntington Room at the King’s Manor, was deeply familiar with the city and the site. Yet for all of his qualifying attributes, Nuttgens essentially failed to make any substantiative assessment of Feilden’s work. One of the ‘most baffling pieces of architecture in the north of England’ was just about all he could manage.3 A juxtaposition is impossible to deny, but is bewilderment a fair observation?
This flat roofed building is underscored by one of two concrete ribbons, the second of which marks the first floor from the second. Both of these concrete bands run the width of this mostly brick façade and neither deviate from their horizonal path when they encounter two bulbus and protruding cantilevered elements, or ‘huge unwindowed blocks’, for Nikolas Pevsner, in his Buildings of England series.4 The geometry of this brick and concrete facade is broken by a multitude of rectangular aluminium windows. On both floors, each of the main windows is flanked, above and beneath, by exceptionally narrow horizontal windows. The upper series being the narrowest in all cases. Pevsner chastises Feilden, deciding that these fenestrations are ‘unnecessarily busy’.5 At the ground level, stone brickwork, that once formed the vaulted basement of an earlier building (c.1610) remains and has been incorporated into Feilden’s Tutorial Block.6 Here, two doglegged concrete staircases, both positioned directly beneath the two cantilevered elements, lead to the main entrances on the first floor.
Admittedly, Pevsner probably never truly sought to offer objective analysis, but his half-hearted commitment to it crumbled at the sight of Feilden’s work here. He summed up, writing that this was ‘brick, concrete and very masculine, or should one call it brutal’?7 It is undeniable that the Feilden Building presented a new challenge to the King’s Manor, yet, to line up with Pevsner’s barely understated derision, or to stand perplexed with Nuttgens would be mistaken positions to take. We can counter Pevsner’s partial observations and address Nuttgens’ unresolved view by saying that it is because the Tutorial Block is so deliberately defined by its form and its materiality (‘brick, stone and concrete’), and because it actively pursues an interaction between the historical and the modern that a new, but very necessary identity is achieved.
Feilden has cleverly exploited the fact that the first glimpse we get of his building is a restricted one, seen through a seventeenth-century archway in the central courtyard. Deliberately positioning one of the two staircases in clear line of sight, Feilden has allowed this staircase to be framed, isolating this eminently functional aspect from the rest of building and thereby imparting a sculptural and subjective element to it. This clever framing insists on an interaction between the subject and the frame. Fundamentally, it insists on a relationship between the stone and the concrete, the historical and the modern. This sculptural quality is a statement of modernity, of the ‘brutal’ if Pevsner so wishes, but the concrete staircases are nonetheless symbolic of a response to contemporary need, the start of a new era for the King’s Manor and are testament to an evolution the site needed to make.
But this sort of thing is not new here. It may be a crude generalisation, but the older a particular architectural feature is, the less perceptive we are to the specific interactions it makes with the period it proceeds or follows -when incorporated into an individual building. However jarring it may have been perceived at the time, often we either we do not immediately notice it, or if on the other hand we do, we are far more willing to accept these much older juxtapositions. We can point, for example, point to the Abbott’s House, which features stone and terracotta windows from at least five of the previous seven centuries, a fifteenth-century chimney with diaper brickwork pattern and a seventeenth century parapet. Similarly, the building on the south range in eastern courtyard, has faced almost incessant remodelling and rebuilding in every century since the seventeenth.8
The visible wood casting on the concrete staircases, certainly deliberate, is a very appropriate and necessary variety of new ornamentation. It alludes to the hand of the builder who has metaphorically ‘cast’ an idea of the architect and has produced a new aesthetic here that is, we might think, comparable to the the diaper brickwork of Abbots House. Admittedly, we may perceive the flat roof the concrete ribbons are more assertive and apparent than this patterned brick work of the Abbott’s House, but incongruous they are not. As an aesthetic decision this is no different to what has gone before. This site, the Tutorial Block included, is a rich historical tapestry of material components and aesthetic ideas and nothing we can see in the Feilden Building today is any different than any other earlier addition. The Kings Manor is and always has been an additively pieced together collection of buildings, and the necessity to adapt to a new occupation or function, is what defines this site.
Now almost sixty years after its construction, the passing of time has afforded The Tutorial Block a further and deeper interaction with its environment, as weathered patination has emerged on the concrete elements reflecting the discolouration seen on the earlier stone and brick in the east courtyard. These patinaed surfaces create are a metaphor of evolution and change, alluding to the layers of history observed at this site, which is further exaggerated by the mass of horizontals that is the Feilden Building. This melding together of materials with environment forces us to recognise the continuing and evolving dialogue between one era and the next. It seems very fitting that this building is today the Department of Archaeology.
It might be suggested that the ‘masculine’ Pevsner observed was nothing more than a strong and confident assertion of a new purpose, and that these new materials and geometric forms broadcast a confident expression of pedagogical resolve. This is the sort of bold architectural tone necessary for a new, egalitarian post-war university. But if this building is bolshie or masculine, its voice is measured rather than exaggerated. This is where Feilden’s greatest success is found. The assertions of the new are as deliberate, as well intentioned -and crucially- in proportion to the interactions it seeks with the old. The desire to assert identity has been pursued in equal measure against an objective to respect its environment.
It is probably now quite clear why Sir Bernard Feilden was tasked by the university’s chief architect Sir Andrew Derbyshire (1923-2016) to design this building and to restore the entire King’s Manor complex to a condition fit for its new era. At the time the Tutorial Block was being built, the Norwich based architect was emerging as a serious conservationist. His work at the University of York marked a turning point for him professionally, being later tasked with restoring York Minster and Norwich cathedral.9 His legacy at the King’s Manor is an exceptional model of how twentieth-century architecture can, and probably should, engage with an historical city like York, at least, if it wants to be a success. If we want to appraise Feilden’s work against the ideals of one of the founders of our university, J.B. Morell, who in City of Our Dreams, wrote of a concern for cherishing York’s past, a necessity to respond to present needs while creating provision for the future, then Feilden’s work here must be judged as a distinguished success.10
Nuttgens, Patrick. York (City Building Series). London: Studio Vista, 1970
Pevsner, Nikolaus. The Buildings of England. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972
“The King’s Manor,” in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 4, Outside the City Walls East of the Ouse, (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1975), 30-43