Old Main

Campus masterplans now have to encompass the vast swathes of cities taken over by research universities. However, the majority of these sprawling sites started with either a single or a linked series of buildings. In the US these original buildings often go by the title ‘Old Main’, that single building that served as lecture rooms, laboratories and accommodation. I’m interested in how we’ve grown from these single buildings.

The 19th century saw an explosion of higher education, with teacher training colleges, art schools, technical colleges and university colleges being added to most towns and cities. The architectural choices reflect the conflicts played out in our older universities, with, in effect, a conversation bring played out between a number of architects. Although the new university colleges in London went for classical buildings (think UCL), the teacher training colleges went for low-key gothic.

The Government was not a major force in Higher Education in the 19th Century, but an exception was the commissioning of three colleges for Ireland. Here they set out clear requirements:

… a Great Hall for public and ceremonial purposes, a museum of natural history and geology, a library, a botanic garden, a chemical laboratory, a “cabinet” for philosophical and mechanical apparatus, six lecture theatres holding two hundred persons each, residences for the President and Vice-President, and a cloister for exercise in wet weather. (Blau, 1982, p13)

The Queens Colleges all went for gothic, with different architects borrowing to differing degrees from existing models (Queens Belfast got a copy of an Oxford tower).  Gothic was established as the main building style.  The majority of institutions started with temporary premises before moving into newly designed buildings.  This had the benefit of both accumulating the capital and gaining a clear sense of the requirements.  When Owens College had Alfred Waterhouse build a permanent base, they weren’t too far from the pattern laid out for the Queens Colleges.

The teacher training colleges were built on similar if smaller lines, but they included residential accommodation.   These buildings can be found at the heart of campuses in Chester, Chichester and Winchester.   Having got that first main building, a key choice fell to many growing institutions later on; to stay or to move.  The university colleges were often built in the city centre or amongst nearby housing, with very limited scope to expand.

sheffield 1921

University of Sheffield 1921 (Britain from Above)

Aerial photos show the contrast between the universities who stayed in their original sites and those that moved out to suburbs.  Contrast Sheffield with Birmingham – Joseph Chamberlain’s vision for transforming Mason’s College mean moving from its handsome building, part of the civic building complex, out to a newly designed campus.


University of Birmingham 1928 (Britain from Above)

The university colleges of Exeter and Nottingham had an extra incentive to move as their shared their buildings with other civic users: libraries and galleries.  Their parkland settings gave them room to expand.  For colleges that moved in the inter-war years, this proved a great opportunity – the demonstration of pride in education shown by the new buildings for Edge Hill is obvious.

Edge Hill

Edge Hill Training College 1935 (Britain from Above)

The challenge now is how to incorporate the old main building into a masterplan for a whole campus.  Often the buildings are, perhaps, rather eclipsed by newer bigger buildings.  Although the Great Hall might still have its place, the changing functions of the university mean some of the other uses of those first buildings have changed.   Perhaps we don’t value them as much as the US universities value their ‘Old Main’ buildings?

They are certainly a useful record of the development of our universities; their architecture records changing functions and approaches to education, and the style they were building shows an aspect of their changing nature of higher education – are we looking back to collegiate gothic, or to a form of classicism or now to an ultra-modernism.


Blau E 1982 Ruskinian Gothic – The Architecture of Dean & Woodward 1845-1861, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Pictures from https://britainfromabove.org.uk/en