A change of scene on campus

Founding father of the University, Sir Andrew Derbyshire, talks to Lauren Carter and Simon Davis about forty years of change and the ideals York has since forgotten

When Sir Andrew Derbyshire’s forty-year relationship with the University came to an end five years ago, he vowed he would never come back. He had been one of the leading architects for the University since it was first established, and had continued to work on the development of campus throughout his career. However, during the 1990s the Vice Chancellor, Ron Cooke, called for fundamental changes and ultimately cost Sir Andrew his job. The University appeared to have a new vision for campus and it was this which kept Sir Andrew away from York until last month. He explains: “I couldn’t bear to see what was happening. It was the way the ideals of the founders were not just being ignored but actively rejected that I found distressing.”

On his return, Sir Andrew found the campus had undergone “an astonishing amount of development” and was barely recognisable from the York he had worked on for most of his life. Reflecting on the changes, he comments: “It just seems such a shame that the opportunity was missed to make York an exemplar of modern university architecture”.

According to Sir Andrew, the ideals which the University had once been based upon were pioneering and made York stand out from other institutions. When the original plans were drawn in 1962, both designers and clients agreed that the campus should encourage a sense of community and this had significant implications for its architecture. One of the key features of York’s campus was the collegiate system. As Sir Andrew explains, the founders wanted “a coherent social structure in which living, working and leisure activities could be pursued close to one another, and in which each individual would be able to find intermediate groupings with which he or she could identify with so as not to feel lost in the anonymous mass of the whole University.”

As such, six colleges were formed with the intention of housing students as well as academic departments and leisure facilities. However, Sir Andrew was clear that he did not want the colleges to become imitations of one another. Instead, each one was to remain unique in its design and surrounding landscape and the founders even ensured that individual study bedrooms within the colleges were designed in different ways. Commenting on Derwent, Sir Andrew explains: “Every effort is made to give each room a different shape and window position”.

The founders believed this attention to detail helped to make the York experience a memorable one. As Sir Andrew recalls: “We believed that we had to provide the University community with particular qualities of environment if the experience of belonging to it was to have the significance and value that it should.” This explains the natural landscape surrounding the University, including the lake, trees and ducks, which added to its overall charm. Sir Andrew also mentions that students were allowed to rent boats on the lake, or even use it for windsurfing and rowing, and the Quiet Place was scattered with artwork for students to enjoy, including a sculpture by Henry Moore.

Sir Andrew then returns to his description of the college system and explains that although it was ideal for developing small-scale communities, the founders still wanted to encourage contact between different parts of campus. However, as he points out: “The random contact which we sought would not take place unless we provided direct, sheltered, and safe pedestrian communication between the different buildings.” This led to the covered walkway system; a mass of paths that linked all the colleges to one another and ensured students could visit anywhere on campus whatever the weather.

Sir Andrew also explains that he was keen to promote contact between students and academics of different disciplines and to “build bridges between the different cultures”. Departments were therefore spread evenly across the campus – for example, the three major sciences were dispersed rather than creating one major science faculty.

The overall design of the campus was therefore intended to encourage the development of communities within the colleges, but not to such an extent that students were isolated from each other. The founders still valued the University community as a whole, evident in buildings such as the Library and Central Hall which brought everyone together. Sir Andrew comments: “We designed these as more conventional structures and allowed ourselves the liberty of an architectural style which expressed their functions in a more declamatory way. Thus the Library – perhaps symbolically the most significant building on the campus – is like a warehouse to store ideas and is simple but dignified to suit its elevated site. The Central Hall expresses externally the tiered seating of its auditorium with a suspended roof demonstrating the column free space of the interior.”

Although Sir Andrew remains convinced that the campus he helped to design was a high point for York, he readily accepts that it was not perfect. However, he explains that the founders were keen to improve their designs and did attempt to address various problems: “The first Chemistry professor complained that although we had given him a library and a lecture theatre, we had failed to provide a meeting place for discussion and refreshment. We remedied this in Physics with a double height exhibition space with a snackbar nearby.”

Wentworth was also subject to criticism. Sir Andrew explains: “We couldn’t afford a steel frame for the residential blocks and we had to clad the nucleus in timber.” Nonetheless, he quickly adds “we could at least congratulate ourselves that every building had been put up on time and within the budget”, a subtle reference to the recent accommodation crisis when Alcuin’s extension blocks were not completed in time for the new freshers.

Later developments on campus followed the results of a student opinion survey in 1983. Sir Andrew recalls: “… although students liked the landscape, the convenience of living and working in the University and the Central Hall and Library, the rest of the buildings were described in response to an open question as ‘bland, grey, dull, monotonous, modern, bleak and uninspiring – especially in the winter’.” Consequently, two new buildings were created using “a palette of warm colours and textures to brighten the place up.”

“The first buildings to get the new treatment were the college extensions for Derwent and Langwith”, Sir Andrew explains. “These applied other lessons which we had learnt from the student survey by grouping twelve to fifteen rooms around a three story staircase with a big kitchen-dining-meeting room at the bottom. We also made a start on James College using the same design principles.”

However, despite the encouraging changes on campus, by 1993 the Vice Chancellor, Ron Cooke, called for a review of the entire campus design and Sir Andrew felt his position became untenable: “After over forty years of service I was dropped from the Estates and Buildings Committee and I was shown, as a fait accompli, proposals for a substantial building programme which I could neither endorse nor influence. So I said farewell with great regret.”

When he returned last month, Sir Andrew was concerned by the changes he saw on campus: “I’m not attributing York’s high academic ranking in teaching and research entirely to the way in which it was physically structured in the early years. But good design is not marginal. It can make the difference between a life that is comfortable, enjoyable and stimulating and one that is marred by a continual struggle against a hostile and depressing environment. My worry is that recent changes may threaten the success of the University if they are continued”.

Sir Andrew found many problems in the new design and, with a heavy sigh, recalls: “The destruction of Alcuin College was a particular painful blow.” The “late Alcuin” has since been replaced by a “sort of housing estate of halls of residence” and convinced Sir Andrew that the University has begun to reject the original ideals of the founders. He jokes: “Whereas I had seen elsewhere signs of erosion and a perhaps subconscious weakening of the college idea, this was murder.”

Cracks have also appeared elsewhere. Sir Andrew explains: “Halifax Court is an example of the University’s response in the hands of design and build contractors.” As well as a decline in architectural quality, Halifax was built with a porter’s lodge, a shop and a common room which “gave the Court a superficial resemblance to a college”. According to Sir Andrew, failing to provide “the essential academic functions of tutorials, teaching and research space”, made Halifax nothing more than a halls of residence.

Sir Andrew also notes that Goodricke has been “overwhelmed by a big sort of canteen which, like a cuckoo in the nest, puts the college dining hall completely in the shade”. He asks if this was our answer to a central venue – “a place for a rave-up or a big meeting.”

Unfortunately, we have to explain that this big canteen – the Roger Kirk centre – is, in fact, prioritised for conference guests and York is still lacking a central venue. He explains: “Our solution to this was to build under the grassy hump on the landward side of the Central Hall. The section worked well with a gallery on the same level as the stage and the final result was relatively unobtrusive with a glass roof just as convenient for lounging in the sun as its natural predecessor.” However, the University has rejected this proposal, and the idyllic image of the central venue that never was (see above) serves as a harsh reminder of what York could have been if the founding principles were still valued.

Sir Andrew also mocks the new Alcuin East Wing: “The vocabulary of different shades of grey indicates that the findings of the student survey and our attempts to use a warmer palette have been ignored … Even the new plastic window frames are dark grey.”

In addition to the recent developments, Sir Andrew expresses his surprise at the neglect of features from the original campus: “Although landscape maintenance still seems to be good the same can’t be said for other elements of the built environment like the Goodricke-Vanbrugh Bridge over the lake which has now lost its glass. Is this a sign that the covered ways, like the colleges, will be allowed to succumb to advancing years for lack of conviction?”

Sir Andrew speculates that the recent changes on campus are a sign of things to come on the Heslington East site. Although he remains encouraged by the proposals he has seen so far, he reveals: “I am left with the impression that although the new plan is based on the original aims of the University, its physical form will be fundamentally different.” He feels the collegiate system will continue to be undermined, and campus will instead be divided into “clusters”, with separate accommodation, academic and leisure buildings.

Whatever the future holds for York, Sir Andrew will not be a part of it and some may even consider this fortunate. At a recent lecture at the University, he was accused of being too idealistic in his original designs for the campus. The Library was designed with balconies on each floor so students could read outside during the summer months. However, staff were quick to point out this just increases the possibility of thefts from the Library’s archives. Similarly, Vanbrugh Paradise was designed with low-level lighting so the stars in the Heslington night sky could be visible to anyone wandering outside. However, welfare staff noted at the time this makes the open campus unsafe after dark. Unfortunately for Sir Andrew, he was not only subject to the whim of the Vice Chancellor, but also had to face new health and safety regulations.

“Although landscape maintenance still seems to be good the same can’t be said for other elements of the built environment like the Goodricke-Vanbrugh Bridge over the lake which has now lost its glass. Is this a sign that the covered ways, like the colleges, will be allowed to succumb to advancing years for lack of conviction?”

The original campus was not without its flaws and certain changes to its design were inevitable. Nonetheless, Sir Andrew and the other founding fathers remained loyal to the ideals the University was once based upon and, in his mind, this is what makes York memorable not only for the students on campus but for those designing it: “everybody involved can find the whole process rewarding and enjoyable, as it was in the first ten years of this University which remain for me the best years of my whole career. I can only wish the same for everybody involved in the next ten years of this unique place.”

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