One of the most sensitive and cleverly designed structures of recent times, Kingsgate Bridge by Ove Arup was built in early 60s and was soon joined by a notable neighbouring building, Dunelm House where  Ove Arup Associates also acted as structural engineers.

The simplicity and delicacy of the bridge design is seen next to a large but broken concrete ‘jumble’ sitting on a steep slope almost opposite Durham Cathedral. I have been a great admirer of this contrasting ‘duo’ from the day I saw these in mid 60s and my recent second visit has not disappointed me in any way.

The bridge links Dunelm House to other university buildings across the river, while serving various buildings spread around it all over the city. The design exploited the sloping site to its advantage by hiding a large building complex with some large volumes without breaking the existing medieval texture of Durham.

The views from communal and other windows looking over the river and indeed the bridge offer superb views. The reflections of lights and life within the building  seen from the opposite bank are also quite exciting.

The building plan is conceived by forming a spine of stair route which collects the visitors at two upper most levels and starts their downward journey on this spine.

All major usable spaces are at various landings along the route. The stair widths and landings reflect the significance of destinations. The stair stops at the lowest level which also houses the largest and less frequently used main gathering space.

The original finishes inside the building were restrained and sombre. The grey concrete and quarry tiled floors were used in most places. The current taste and more affluent student population seeks more Pub/Club like atmosphere.

I am certain that such demands have resulted in use of some bright colours in main stair areas, destroying the unifying and linking function to move between various destinations. The yellowish tinge you see on my photos is result of paint and not the tungsten light or underexposure.

The original white open ceiling white planks with dark sound absorbent filling behind has now become shiny red which one is happy to accept as transient response to cater the tastes of given periods.

The external walls are made of lightweight (foamed slag) concrete fairfaced board marked finish both inside and outside of insulated load bearing external walls. It is remarkable to notice that concrete on Arup’s bridge has suffered heavy staining while Dunelm House is quite free from serious staining. This may be due to some property of the slag and its mix.

The original roof was meant to be covered in Zinc for economy reason, but Royal Fine Art Commission objected and the resulting precast giant concrete tiles were used using a pink shap granite.

This was obviously a step to ensure that the visible roof was part of this cohesive massing and fitted in the townscape more successfully.

The main entrances at the highest point of site at the junction of footpath leading to Arup’s bridge is brilliant design. These entrances bring the users to the head of stairs, feeding them down like a constant ‘waterfall’.

Black & White photos from AJ 15 June 1966 and  two other B&W photos and Blue Cross Section from Architectural Review (date not visible) from John Donat’s article.

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Smithsons have earned themselves a very special place in 20th century British architectural world to sit on a high ledge and look back at their lifelong work consisting of some seminal buildings, influential and extensive writings and indeed some heartbreaking disappointments which almost drove them to despair.

Their final projects were built at Bath University campus which was founded in 1965 as a college of Advanced Technology based on a master plan by RMJM. I recently visited the campus for the first time to see Smithsons projects which are not very well known here as these were designed by them towards the end of their lives after a long and painful ‘drought’ of work. The architectural landscape of early 80s in Britain had changed and was dominated by new ‘superstars’ producing visually exciting stuff. The younger generation being taught by Smithsons failed to notice the pedigree and place of their new work in recent historical context being built around them. In fact, by this time most of the architectural world was not interested or impressed by what little they noticed in the press. Smithsons as usual were not to be swayed by the current fashions and in their normal defiant manner they took up the challenge to put their architectural legacy in rightful historical context with this last chapter they wrote and edited themselves.

Unfortunately, their good luck in obtaining this work in 80s coincided with another ‘drought’, this time financial, which almost decimated any attempt to produce buildings of decent standards to go with the growth demands of the campuses completed in the heady days of 60s. These campuses reflected the social and technological optimism of high hopes experienced by that period. The financial restrictions faced by Smithsons were bad enough but their insistence to ensure that their contributions were in keeping with their earlier intellectual aims made their life even more difficult. Although most of the ideas behind the master plan were derived from Smithsons/TeamX work but I feel that they were not entirely satisfied with this development as they clearly stated that they wanted to ‘…extend them and delicately shift their meaning.’

For Smithsons this opportunity to build meant “Almost a series of case studies. Each building could be a demonstration of different attitudes to location siting, and construction. Each could also show in built form both the development of formal, organisational or constructional ideas which had previously only existed in drawings for earlier projects, and the emergence of new thoughts related to the adaptation and extension of the fabric of existing settlements.” (From AJ article)

The Second Arts Building.

The second Arts Building was described by the architects as a new piece woven onto the edge of an existing mat… like a terminating fringe …seemingly complete. It is three storeys high and delta shaped in plan. A ‘knuckle’ lobby links this building to the older building next to a staircase. Three different departments were housed on different levels and the room functions were allocated according to type of occupancy, need of looking out, need for darkness and thermal requirements.

A Zumthor like feature has emerged where Smithsons wanted ‘internal ways’, (corridors to you and me) to have an exposed blockwork finish which had a carefully calculated acoustic quality – ‘the noise of one’s feet getting quieter as one penetrated the building’. This plan was foiled as the university proceeded to plaster these surfaces, which architects described as an occupational hazard.

The plan is attempting to create triangular landscaped courtyards which Smithsons were hoping to be full of mature landscaping after 20 years or so.

The most striking visual feature is the cornice described by Smithsons as ‘ a Moghul style chujja’ which ‘acts like the wide brimmed traditional English ladies’ garden party hat, its wide brim extending a protective field around its wearer yet making the eyes seem larger… it has an effect both of distancing and tempting.’

Smithsons used a similar analogy by calling the timber trelliced work at St Hilda as a kind of ‘yashmack’ offering some protection to the female occupiers of the bedrooms.

While the outer edges of tassels forming the triangular courtyards are straight with ribbon windows and v-joints in concrete surfaces (Smithsons first venture in exposed poured concrete) leading to a language of external surface grooves, the north facing face in between these edges has a zig-zag edge which is firmly held between two stairwell towers rising high to contain air-handling plants at either end.

This orientation of the building is also an attempt to make the back of building look more animated and less of a ‘back’ of ‘centrally focused mat’.

I also feel that Smithsons are referring to Lasdun’s student clusters of East Anglia. This is one of the very few British examples of modern architecture mentioned in their book ‘Without rhetoric- An architectural aesthetic’. They have very cleverly reversed the massing and orientation of Lasdun’s

ziggurats to achieve the architectural shift they sought. I was not able to go in Arts building, or talk to any occupier and therefore am unable to comment about the functional aspects. Unfortunately, the overall appearance of the building, massing and now fairly matured landscaping are not offensive in any way  still leaves the architectural anticipations and emotions ‘thirsty’ from such great names.

Non-academic staff building

 

This building is located on the south side of the main campus in a two storey high detached pavilion. One can see similarities with their famous1960s Upper Lawn Pavilion at Fonthill. The upper floor here looks in three directions and sits on a partly submerged heavily constructed ground floor. I am unable to find out whether this base was some existing structure or created by Smithson themselves. There is a very definite back/service side to this construction but other three sides and indeed the roof have been designed to deter any future additions to the structure. It is meant to be a defined punctuation mark not there to be meddled with in future. All this is perfectly understandable for a building to be seen and used by users approaching this key location from all parts of the campus also ensuring the edges of the ‘mat’ are suitably terminated.

The light weight steel construction of upper floor relies on heavy cross bracings on corner and a substantially heavy concrete fascia beam has been attached to light weight steel sections for support. The recessed voids on semi-sunken lower level remain function-less and are still cause for concern to the university and were recently fenced off.

The concrete fascia may be attempting to relate to the existing vocabulary of older campus buildings but it is worth remembering that the Arts Barn on the other side of the campus has also got a steel roof and fascias both covered with stainless steel skins.

However, the limited availability of funding an inherently expansive and space wasting semi-submerged resting base for a bridged access ‘piano-nobile’ and attached terraces may have produced an adequately functional building, but I am beginning to develop some inferiority complexes about my own ability to appreciate some hidden qualities of these two great architects who possibly are too cerebral for me to follow as I have to admit this building leaves me bereft of any architectural emotions resembling joy or pleasure.

The following issues of AJ were used for References, plans, photos and quotations; AJ 30 November  1983. AJ 16 January 1991. 

  St Hilda’s Garden Building never failed to raise eyebrows from the day it was published and built. Smithsons reputation in this country meanwhile had its up and downs and is currently facing the final humiliation of the demolition of Robin Hood Garden housing in London.


Stirling took delight in doing summersaults and gymnastics with his dazzling display of form making and bursts of creativity, when questioned, criticized and taunted his short and sweet answer was a sign of  ‘two fingers’ and a ‘f*** off’. Stirling’s Florey building, built along the same river side is literally a few minutes walk from St Hilda and was built almost at the same time, but comparing these two buildings gives a fascinating insight into two very British creative mindsets, quirky yet brilliant.

  

One of the keys to understand this building to my mind is to look at client’s instruction and involvement. (Please enlarge by clicking on the scan below)

 

Smithsons could have chosen other locations for this building within the college site but dutifully decided not to close the view of the river for rest of the college at present or in future. They also attempted to create a service road at the back of the building, which could be extended to resolve the vehicular service for the future college growth without impacting on the green space.


Their preferred site was the space between Cherwell Hall (Wikinson’s Gothic mansion, 1879) and Wolfson Building (Richardson 1964), with tentative physical connections to each, formed using brick walls, timber frame and roof forming walkways. This sets the stage for a perpetual dance between the single mature copper beech standing close to the new building with a stretched arm twirling the building, dressed in an attire of see-through dress, embroidered with the lacework of greenery.

 Smithsons quickly arrived at forms by re-using ideas from Economist design. The floor plan was based on one of the towers. The concrete pre-cast posts, including the vertical recess/channel were also from Economist, which in modified form were also used in Robin Hood Lane as vertical sound baffle, although in both cases these were structurally not performing the implied load bearing/frame function.


 

It seems that right from day one Smithsons’ empathies were with this cash strapped girls college trying to make inroads in this well established ‘old boys’ network’. Anything remotely wasteful was to be shunned; answering the precise college requirements within the costs and design a building to bring a sense of coherence to the motley collection of college buildings was more important than adhering to any architectural philosophies, iconography or displays of egotism. This they achieved with great success but with a mischievous twist or two for their peers to resolve, who they fully expected will be watching and scratching their heads for some time to come.

 

This is exactly what followed. The indeterminate quality of elevations, floating timber oak frame work resting on concrete knuckles, precast concrete mullions masquerading as load bearing frames in front of load bearing cellular brick walls separating bedrooms behind, may have teased us all but there is no denying that the completed building remains calm and unpretentious and well and truly wedded to the site. The building fulfilled the brief requirements of bed layouts, acoustical privacy, short corridors, wash basins in mini-dressing rooms and pedantic insistence on clothing storage for each unit, which all came within the allocated costs.



 

Smithsons explanation for oak screen; “Starting from the fundamental English problem of needing a lot of light, we have provided big windows. But to prevent the girls being too ‘exposed’ (their psyche as well as person is exposed with much glass) there is a separate external screen of timber members, which we hope will cut down the glare, obviate any sense of insecurity, and prevent the casual eye from breaking too easily the ‘skin’ of the building. The timber screen is a kind of yashmak.”

The AD article calls it a ‘tudor yashmack’, a phrase difficult to improve on as at the time of designing St Hilda, holidays trips to Tunisia and fascination with Elizabethan black and white style is well recorded and Smithsons were fond and capable of playing architectural games.

A small ‘quip’ has also come to my notice. The building was definitely designed to have a front (three sides with windows) and a back (with London stock bricks). Smithsons were keen to emphasize this and decided to drop a big box of a lean-to roofed ‘Trunk room’ exactly the same size as the opening between the two brick panels, under the glazed cut out square forming the entrance. The box structure looks like a lid which has been unhinged from the building to rest on the ground.

This room blocks the entry by being bang in front of the main entrance, had a tenuous roof link, and defines the ritual of students arriving at the start of the term with trunks bursting at the seams and leaving empty suitcases in this shed to collect at the end of the year. There are two openings, one on each side of this room (which is now demolished) allowing entrance to the pedestrians approaching from the service area at the back. These openings have chamfered brick edges directing people towards the centrally placed entrance, highlighting the ‘pincer-movement’ of entry to avoid the Trunk Room. A little joke which obviously was not noticed or appreciated by recent architects who have dropped a rather mundane looking canopy where the room used to be.

 

 

For us to try to find the sources of inspiration, I feel, is a futile exercise for architects who have spent most of their life looking and studying a myriad of subjects in every corner of the world. However, I show the list of  inspirations from the AD article more as a game.

An article about this building in Architectural Design February 71 (photos and some information taken from this article) titled ‘The pursuit of ordinariness’ says that the building and room design is such that one is transported to the world of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs. Twiggy-winkle of which Alison Smithson has written so nostalgically. In Beatrix Potter’s interiors, she wrote in December 1967; “Objects and utensils in daily use are conveniently located, often on individual hooks and nails, and are all the ‘decorations’ the ‘simple’ spaces need , or in fact can take. Those things in secondary use or needing long term storage are in special storage cubicles whose forms define the house space proper – as well as being pleasant spaces in themselves. Here then, we find the basic necessities raised to a poetic level; the simple life well done.

This is in essence the percept of the whole modern movement in architecture, but it is only in the immediate post-war period that there have been architects, perhaps old enough, to stand off from theories sufficiently to be relaxed – and sophisticated about them in practice.”

One of the best examples of 60’s brutalist monolith structures is a sizeable and well considered building designed for a dramatic site in cold climate. Since a significant slice was built as the first phase by a confident and dedicated architect, the functionality of the building can be assessed to measure various design criteria envisaged by John Andrews.

Unfortunately, the Canadians seem to be shy or ashamed of this significant building and the younger generations of architects seem to be unaware of this example of romantic brutalism, representing a significant branch of modern movement in mid 20th century.

I visited Canada as an architectural student to see Expo 67 and also took this opportunity to see as much architecture on East coast of Canada and USA I could cope on the Greyhound buses. Scarborough College, as it was known then, completely bowled me over. Even my semi-matured architectural understanding could not fail to grasp the ‘magic’ of this building. Luckily the slides I took, survived more than 40 years of storage and a bit of cleaning of digitised images is the basis of my photographs here and on Flickr pages. Set http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/sets/72157603763663802/

Kenneth Frampton wrote a critique of this building in April 1967 issue of Architectural Design. I am reproducing some of the drawings from this article and paraphrasing or quoting some other relevant parts.

Scarborough was designed as one of the first two satellite campuses to take all their undergraduate programmes. As it was a fair distance away from Toronto, the students were to gain access by car or bus. Kenneth Frampton was surprised to see lack of undercover walks from distant car parking to a building which entirely relied on warm covered student circulation. He assumed that this was either a cost saving measure or possibly certain architectural preconceptions about approach and entry to the building. Andrews wanted the open academic near the admin block to be a dignified, formal hub of the college activity giving access to all college buildings.

The layout is centralized in its organization. The positioning of radiating wings of the building was governed by the site constraints and maximum walking distance of 10 minutes.

“The choice of site has ruthlessly determined the plan profile of the building, making it an obsessive and rock-like extension of the escarpment upon which it rests. The old classic imperative that man-made form be rendered distinct from natural form is at once challenged by this organic parti.”

KF considers the building to be a biological organization on an irregular site, difficult to handle formally. Receding or cantilevered wings modulated, when possible, by structural or servicing elements as well as cranked ‘knuckles’ containing lecture halls, changing  the direction of wing segments. The entire building is thus ‘coded’ externally to express consistently four different component functions: lecture halls, offices, laboratories and staircases.

The projecting or receding elements also help to form continuous enclosed pedestrian streets rising two floors or full height of the building. The inclined service ducts serving laboratories not only feed and drain waste from the laboratories but also distribute forced air to and from ducts on the roof.

In the humanities wing a two-tiered counterpointed battery of lecture halls maintains a protective windowless wall on northern windswept face, while the faculty offices on south face project out providing solar protection.

Tiered sections also provide daylight to internal streets and full height court, ‘meeting place’ placed at the meeting of two converging streets.

“One cannot but be impressed by the ingenuity and generosity of this organization and by its evident operational success. It is a success that is ‘environmentally’ supported by the consistent use of high quality internal finishes and by felicitous light.”

Scarborough possesses a built-in allowance for variable patterns of use…..

As Oscar Newman has observed, ‘The continuous problem of change can to some extent be avoided by the further development of the organic logic and hierarchical organization of spaces and activities—a solution which in itself goes a long way toward limiting the need for large-scale future changes.’

“Scarborough departs radically from the traditional Anglo-Saxon quadrangular university complexes of recent years. It is by far the most daring, comprehensive and radical, and as such merits serious critical attention.”

Towards the end KF writes in some detail about the intellectual aspects of campuses as prototypical city form and compares Scarborough with work of Candilis, Josic and Woods. He considers  limits of growth, organization and classic vs. romantic thoughts. I suggest you read the article to read this analysis.

The article ends by stating, “Scarborough belongs to the nexus of thought… shaped by Camillo Sitte ….and travels to Frank Lloyd Wright….. and back in Europe is to be found in the thoughts of an Aalto, a Pietila. It is equally the thought of a James Stirling or a Paul Rudolph. These men are all positively not of the classic mind – and neither is John Andrews.”

After 40 years of expansion and changes, the latest master plan can be seen here http://www.daniels.utoronto.ca/node/753.

When John Andrews was designing and building this in Canada Denys Lasdun was in the middle of constructing University of East Anglia which has many similarities with Scarborough. While Patrick Hodgkinson conceived Brunswick Centre in London almost at the same time as Scarborough was being designed, although it was not completed till 1973. It has a much more urban and slightly formal context as one of the best megastructures of the period in this country.

More photos of this project and other Andrews work on my Flickr set http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/sets/72157603763663802/

For recent photographs see set from Ben http://www.flickr.com/photos/bencnh/sets/72157624082032257/