City, University of London
- Original design
- EW Mountford, 1896
All old buildings tell a story, but College Building has two histories to relate: one is about its slightly quirky architecture, the other about the entwined educational and social roles it has played for almost 120 years. At first glance, the sweep of the main frontage on St John Street, with its big centrally placed tower, looks imposing and symmetrical. But a second glance reveals that its architect, Edward W Mountford (1855-1908) was not a slave to symmetry and enriched his design with features from other cultures, styles and traditions. These eclectic architectural borrowings include a classical frieze, a broken pediment, turrets, sash windows, Diocletian windows and Dutch gables.
Mountford, famous as the architect of the Old Bailey, chose Suffolk red brick for the exterior, with white Portland stone dressings for contrast. Portland stone frames windows and doorways and long ribbons of it are used as simple decoration. The overall effect, harmonious and arresting, wins high praise in the Buildings of England guide, where Cherry and Pevsner rate it as “an exceedingly successful example of the neo-French C16 style of the moment with its fresh and playful enrichments”. These include a massive clock, cantilevered over the front, and a balcony fit for a civic building.
In the main lobby, Mountford’s purpose is revealed – it’s not a showy Victorian town hall but the expression of a new dimension in education: universities were for the few, but a new type of college – called institutes – could be for the many. Offering full and part time courses in skilled crafts, engineering, manufacturing and science, institutes were one of the big ideas of late C19 policy-makers: meeting the needs of expanding, industrialising Britain by making vocational education the route to employment for poorly-schooled men and women.
College Building, opened in 1898, was originally the Northampton Institute. Built on land donated by a titled family of that name, it was a purpose-built, well-equipped model. Workshops and labs were as important as classrooms; physical fitness was part of the regime, with both a gymnasium and swimming pool on the site. New ideas of public health were reflected in wide and airy teaching rooms and passageways; advances in construction techniques meant that, behind a traditional exterior, Mountford could use steel and concrete to increase the dimensions of interior spaces.
As well as formal academic instruction, Mountford’s brief was to include leisure and learning provision for residents of Finsbury, at the time a poor and crowded borough. This Open House tour includes the multi-purpose Grand Hall. In its heyday it staged public lectures, plays, dances and music performances for up to 1500, rivalling nearby music halls in Islington and Holborn in capacity – though offering refined rather than raucous fare. There was an organ, and an elaborately painted ceiling (now covered over). In the exam season, the floor was filled with lines of student desks.
Mountford skilfully planned his building to fit a tricky triangular site, bounded by three roads. In the middle, to create a collegiate ambiance, he put an internal cloistered court, but this was soon built over, such was the need for more teaching space. Changing social patterns, the demands of the labour market, the horrors of war: all brought changes to the Institute. As a photographic display (part of the visitor tour) shows, both world wars inflicted much bomb damage. In 1914-18, several departments produced a range of technical equipment. Through all this Mountford’s vision to provide an inspiring learning environment remains: wide corridors; austere but elegant stone spiral staircases; the swimming pool (now floored over) with its original changing cubicles. They are dinky as beach huts – reflecting a twinkle in the eye of a serious architect.