The Scots architect James Frazer Stirling (1926–1992) formed a partnership with James Gowan (b. 1923) in 1955 after winning a commission for a low-rise housing development in Ham Common, Middlesex (1955–1958). The design started a trend in England for broadly finished brick and exposed concrete. There followed a couple of domestic scale projects, and in July 1959 their more influential work: the Engineering Building at Leicester University (completed 1963), which has been called the “pinnacle of their mutual achievement.” The seminal building, which juxtaposes a glazed office tower with red-tile facings on the massive cantilevered lecture theaters and a single-story workshop, was unlike any postwar architecture elsewhere and broke the hold of Le Corbusier upon British architects. The critic Reyner Banham coined the name “New Brutalism” to describe the new style, which exposed concrete, steel, and brick and rejected the polished and elegant finishes and geometric regularity of the International Modern Movement. The character of the Engineering Building was quickly and widely emulated in Britain; its influence persisted even longer in Japan.
Leicester University was founded as a university college in 1921 and granted its Royal Charter in 1957. The administration appointed the Cambridge engineer Edward Parkes to set up a new engineering faculty, to commence with 200 students. The university also commissioned Leslie Martin to produce a master plan for developing the 9-acre (3.6-hectare) campus; Stirling and Gowan’s building was its first major postwar facility. By the end of 1959 they had produced two alternative preliminary designs. The final scheme was approved in March 1960, although the two architects disagreed over the glazing of the tower block. In fact, their partnership was dissolved as soon as the building was completed.
The building has two main elements: a complex, multistory main building that houses two lecture theaters, laboratories, and offices, and a lower level housing workshops. Two cantilevered reinforced concrete lecture theaters (attributable to the structural engineers), their sloping seating expressed on the outside of the building, are set at right angles to each other and are joined by a diagonal ramp. Four stories of laboratories rise beside the smaller theater on tall concrete columns; surfaces are faced with deep red Accrington brick and red Dutch tiles. Above the larger theater—also brick and tile clad—is a six-story, fully glazed office tower, its narrow rectangular form modified by cut-off corners, crowned by a water tank. The spiral staircase that serves it penetrates the cantilevered block. The adjacent ground-level heavy-machinery workshops, covering over two-thirds of the site and designed mainly by Gowan, are clad in part with translucent glass and roofed with long, diagonal, north-facing glass trapezoidal prisms. One historian has commented that “a mannerist taste for distortion and paradox” permeates the building, and that the “diversity of forms 1/4 is a pretext for the liveliest interplay of masses.” Such a cynical view undervalues the work of one of Britain’s—the world’s—greatest twentieth-century architects; indeed, a winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize (1981) and “a leader of the great transition from the Modern Movement to the architecture of the New.”