£19.5 million to preserve Stirling and Gowan's engineering building

It may not be part of the public consciousness in the manner of Stonehenge or Hadrian’s Wall, but Stirling and Gowan’s engineering building at the University of Leicester took its place alongside them in The Daily Telegraph’s top 50 list of the UK’s famous structures. 

The finance for the work is provided by a loan from the European Investment Bank and the university’s own capital. Each of the 2,500 glass panels of the 45-degree, patent-glazed, diamond-shaped roof will be replaced.

(The enabling works around the Engineering Building. All images courtesy Univeristy of Leicester)

Due to be completed by the end of 2016 Arup are providing professional consultancy, facade, structural, M&E and principal designer services for the project.

Head of the Department of Engineering, Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng, noted how the idea of engineering directed the building’s forms, “Stirling and Gowan designed the building around the fact that it was for an Engineering Department. For example, the height of the tower was determined by the head of water required for thermofluids and hydraulics experiments and the interior of the building very much reflects the industrial aesthetic.”

The building was the first major commission for James Stirling (who went on to give his name to the Stirling Prize) and James Gowan who died in June this year. It’s become part of the conversation that the knowing use of modernist forms and the use of industrial vernacular in a school building make it the first major post-modern building in Britain. That said it’s also arguable that its simulation of modernism is so utterly complete, blink, and you’ll miss its post-modernism. As architectural historian Gavin Stamp wrote in a letter in response to James Gowan’s obituary in The Guardian, 

“It seems odd to describe the celebrated engineering department of the University of Leicester as ‘Britain’s first postmodernist building’ when, with its pure geometries and self-conscious industrial references, it deliberately looked back to the origins of the modern movement in architecture.” 

(All images courtesy Univeristy of Leicester)

John Jacobus’ 2,500 word April 1963 crit for The Architectural Review is worth reading for the impassioned conviction in the building's philosophy. Jacobus details the ingenuity of the building’s composition, its materials, lines, masses, and surfaces which he argues achieve novelty without being gratuitous. “Leicester Engineering is so complete and integral an architectural solution that at last one is consumed with a paradoxical sense of fury. Why have we been willing for decades to settle for less?... Isn’t the functional clarity which this building documents the very thing which, we have been told, contemporary architecture is all about?”

Watch Architect Alan Berman's review of the building

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