Tuesday22 August 2017


Revisiting Denys Lasdun’s UEA

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Half a century on, Denys Lasdun’s campus for the University of East Anglia remains as striking and popular as ever.

The 1950s saw a huge rise in the number of students in higher education, but for many years successive governments resisted calls to fund new universities. The impasse was broken by the University of Sussex in 1958, and six more new institutions were built across England in the 1960s.

These new universities – known as the glass box universities or the “Shakespearean Seven”, so similar were their names to the retainers in Richard III – were the first to be given large-scale government funding from the first.

’…it is an assembly of built forms with a rich diversity of spaces, each one intimately attached to the particular piece of landscape in which it finds itself, and the whole thing changeable and growing. It will never be a
finished object but it will have
a sense of place, because without a sense of place there can be
no sense of belonging’

Denys Lasdun, The Listener, 1966

All explored different ways of massing teaching accommodation, realising new patterns of student living, and designing small townships, but none defined itself so clearly by its architecture as the University of East Anglia.

Norwich had bid three times for a university before in 1960 the government accepted a proposal supported by county and borough councils across East Anglia (hence the name). Norwich City Council donated its municipal golf course some two miles from the city centre, comprising 67ha of parkland sloping southwards to the River Yare from Earlham Hall. A further 40ha was subsequently added to the west, so that the surrounding countryside was protected.

The abiding image was set by its first buildings, the product of a visionary client,
vice chancellor Frank Thistlethwaite, and an exceptional architect, Denys Lasdun.

Thistlethwaite had a strong interest in architecture. Before his appointment to UEA, he had sat on the buildings committee of St John’s College, Cambridge, where Lasdun’s idea for a ziggurat of four pyramids linked by covered walkways had been passed over in favour of Powell & Moya’s linear scheme for the Cripps Building. At UEA he wanted an architect to take responsibility for the first buildings as well as the masterplan, and this is the reason given for the refusal of the commission by Leslie Martin – who seems to have been happy to produce a plan but not the buildings – in favour of Lasdun.

Thistlethwaite and Lasdun developed their ideas over the early part of 1962. “It quickly became clear that there was a true meeting of minds about the way the academic designs should be resolved in architectural terms,” Thistlethwaite recorded.

Lasdun studied the site intensely, both from a helicopter and on foot. In 1984 he described the buildings as being “conceived as architectural hills and valleys. From the air, they are like an outcrop of stone. From the ground, they hug the landscape which is itself preserved by the plan’s compactness and remains distinct from the urbanity of the university.”

As nowhere else, the buildings are themselves the landscape. Lasdun’s concern was with the views out of the site, and he did not plan the present lake, though he contemplated diverting the river closer to the buildings.

Instead he centred his plan on what he termed “a landlocked harbour” at the centre of the site, where he intended the communal and social buildings to be. Here he envisaged the grass swards that lap up to the edges of the development coming right into its heart. The library, lecture theatres and computer room were built there to his designs, but the central square of recreational buildings was developed only later by Bernard Feilden, incorporating buildings by Birkin Haward and others.

Most important, the university was to be compact, with Lasdun intending that a student could get from his or her bed to a seminar in five minutes.

He hugged the lines of the contours with long, narrow buildings which also achieved a vertical segregation, with pedestrians on an upper walkway system and vehicles on the ground below. The walkways resemble a street, with the teaching facilities to one side and the residential blocks on the other, slung between the entrance square of communal buildings at one end, and Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre, added at the other in 1975-78.

Thistlethwaite had a strong belief, common at the time, in broad schools of study and the cross-fertilisation of ideas between academic boundaries, recognising that “most of the great breakthroughs or growing points have recently tended to be at the interstices between established disciplines”. This was partly explored at Sussex, where the arts faculty occupies a single amorphous building, but UEA took the idea to its logical conclusion.

He organised UEA into schools of study, which provided broad first-year courses from which greater specialisation was to follow by means of seminar-based teaching. Lasdun set the original teaching facilities in a single, long spine – a built expression of the tendency for courses to expand and contract, and of the contact between them, both physically and symbolically. Arts and science subjects were to be contained within the same spine. It is the first building that gave full play to Lasdun’s mature style of strong horizontals and roof turrets, which he was to repeat at the University of London and the National Theatre.

Thistlethwaite and his advisers also gave careful thought to residential accommodation. He produced a paper on residences in January 1962, from which Lasdun, assisted by Edward Cullinan, developed the “basic habitat” or unit of 12 study bedrooms and a kitchen-cum-breakfast room, all facing out towards the river, with bathrooms and service rooms behind, and reached off a stair. The accommodation of the students in independent flats, away from a collegiate system, marked a new departure in allowing students greater freedom within a “family unit” of their peers.

It was also the perfect opportunity for Lasdun to develop the ziggurats he had proposed at Cambridge. The rear of the blocks is concealed below the walkways, with car parking and bicycle racks. To the front, the stepped section made possible rooms that have a high part facing the countryside and a low part to the rear, making the stairs slightly less steep, with only 12 steps between each floor, but the inner parts of the rooms consequently very low.

Externally, the effect is to create a stepped wall of glass, for the roof of one level is at the height of the window sill in the room above. The breakfast rooms are on the projecting corners, the inner angle has the one double room in the unit. Most of the construction was of large concrete units precast on site, and comparison with the in-situ work of the walkways reveals a greater quality of finish.

The building work was beset by difficulties – there were delays, leaks and budget overruns. After just two sets of ziggurats had been built – Norfolk and Suffolk Terrace – Lasdun was edged out in 1968 to be succeeded by Bernard Feilden, whose plain additions in concrete block included “rough and ready” catering and bar facilities and minimal loan-financed accommodation.

After UEA, only the University of Essex with its giant courtyards of teaching accommodation and 20-storey towers attempted a similar mix of flexibility for restructuring courses with flat living in close proximity. Later university plans, led by Lancaster, attempted a similar mix with a softer approach – a low-rise, high density pancake of deliberately nebulous architectural form.

UEA’s defining image are the ziggurats, yet they have their detractors. The stairs are steep and the bathrooms cramped, and though the views are wonderful, concerns that students were climbing out on to the roof ledges prompted initiatives to introduce window stops or railings. These led in 2003 to the listing of these blocks, the library and the teaching spine.

The ziggurats were sensitively refurbished in 2007, and their stepped cliffs of glass and refined concrete are as sharp and crisp as ever. Bathrooms, always a tight squeeze, have been reorganised and circulation improved. But there was controversy over the major extension to the library by Shepheard Epstein Hunter, for its scale, location and the softer, timber-clad idiom so associated with this firm. It was tucked in as carefully as possible, however.

Elsewhere UEA has subsequently returned to the grand gesture in its architecture, first with the separately funded and subsequently named Sainsbury Centre, and since the 1990s with new accommodation blocks by Rick Mather, John Miller and LSI Architects whose long, sinuous terraces acknowledge Lasdun’s masterplan.

The new residences have en-suite showers, but the plan of 8-12 students sharing cooking facilities has been retained, and is cited as an important feature in encouraging first years to meet and bond. UEA is noted for having a lot of modern residential accommodation on campus, and since 2000 has expanded eastwards of Lasdun’s buildings at an enormous rate, while preserving something of the parkland idyll to the south and west.

Lasdun’s legacy is not in the materials he used but in the plan, while an unusual degree of homogeneity has been achieved by the consistently high quality of the architecture produced over its 35-year history.

The library is the most changed part of the composition. Enlarged, it is more easily read as the heart of the plan, but its integrity as a standalone building was always the workaday part of Lasdun’s composition, but has stood up well to change.

The iconic part remains the stepped Norfolk and Suffolk terraces, their profile earning
them the name “ziggurats”, and these look better than ever.

The University’s view

Lasdun’s buildings are still valued very highly. We are to some extent still working with his original masterplan in that we haven’t strayed far from Lasdun’s view that no accommodation should be more than five minutes walk away. 

From a student point of view, the ziggurat housing is in high demand. They like the close proximity of the buildings to the rest of the campus and how the ziggurats roll down into the landscape.

As for the teaching wall, we get a few negative comments about the concrete, but people are generally appreciative of the environment, and the benefits of a continuous run of different schools together. We’ve built our reputation on interaction between the schools and the architecture helps with that.

The buildings’ values were recognised in their listing in 2003. For the past five years we’ve worked with English Heritage through a Heritage Partnership Agreement which allows us to do internal alterations without going through the listed building planning process and this has helped us manage alterations. Concrete-wise, the campus is coming up to being 50 years-old and has worn well.

The teaching wall is a challenge from a carbon reduction point of view. We’ve done several studies into upgrading thermal
performance and single glazing but it would cost too much in a 450m-long, six-storey block. We’re still scratching our heads on that.

Andrew Burbidge, Estates and Buildings Division, UEA





Readers' comments (1)

  • I need to find uot some of the technical drawings by Sir Denys Lasdun for UEA students housing at Norfolk Terrace, for my main assignment. I would be grateful to you if you can send me information or some projects which you may own.
    Please Help me, I will be gratefull to you.
    Hoping that my request will be fulfilled I 'm looking forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.
    Sincerely yours,
    Alex Ferrua

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