From ‘Old Joe’ to Muirhead Tower: A Case Study of University Architectural Decline

By |2019-10-07T08:38:32+00:00October 7th, 2019|Comment|

The following is an excerpt of an article by Darcy Clements. This features in our Conservative’s Guide to University Special Issue, available from the 15th October.

Find out how to get your own copy of the issue here.

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The architect behind the original campus of the University of Birmingham was none other than Sir Aston Webb. Famous for such works as the Britannia Royal Naval College and the redesign of Buckingham Palace’s principal façade, Sir Aston’s appointment as the architect for the university’s original buildings serves to shame the effort placed into modern university design, as well as most architectural works undertaken today. Indeed, the beauty of the campus served as a principal factor in my decision to attend UoB, almost as much as its academic reputation. In fact, ask any student their favourite thing about UoB and it is very likely they will reference ‘Old Joe’, the beloved clocktower on campus named in tribute to UoB’s founder, Joseph Chamberlain.

Now we must come to mark the decline of university architecture, exemplified best in our case study of UoB by Muirhead Tower, a brutalist concrete tower built in the latter half of the 20th century. It is a matter of immense pride that UoB boasts the world’s tallest free-standing clocktower through ‘Old Joe’, yet of enormous shame that it shares a skyline with this abhorrent structure which dominates the landscape like a lawnmower atop a meadow of flowers. In a similar vein, the recently finished library shall too become an eyesore, its lively modern design inevitably to be soiled by the passing of the British seasons. Where ‘Old Joe’ has stood the test of time with dignity and is cherished a century later, UoB’s modern architectural additions blemish the legacy of Sir Aston’s original vision for the campus. While, for instance, the new library design may look clean and modern now, in 20 years’ time it will appear worn and cheap, as out of place as it is today but without the ‘new car smell’ to fool the senses.

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Read the rest of this article in the print issue, information on which can be found HERE.

Photo by Teresa Grau Ros on Flickr. 

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