Genesis of the Engineering Building It was 1959 and the newly upgraded University of Leicester was expanding. The decision had been made to start an engineering department, and Leslie Martin, advisory architect for the whole campus, recommended Stirling and Gowan for the job. The site was an irregular piece of ground surrounded on three sides by the neo-Georgian buildings of the former University College, but the fourth, north-east facing, side opened onto the downhill sloping Victoria Park and became the front. Here the swinging curve of a service road opened up a triangle of space in the northern corner, prompting the 45° swing of the building’s entry ramp. The client was effectively Edward Parkes, who had been lured away from Cambridge to head up the new department. He produced a fairly matter-of-fact brief and demanded efficient operation, but left it up to the architects what it looked like.3 However, the functionalist approach that they seemed to be taking was in line both with his way of thinking and with modernist principles
then still fully in force.4 The main part of the building was a big workshop which Parkes wanted as a single columned space in the interest of flexibility. This was divided about two thirds to one third between general workshop and specialised hydraulic and structures areas, displacing the main cross axis of the service passage into an asymmetrical position. The whole space was to be daylit like a factory with a glazed northlight roof, but as the site stood at about 45° to north, the roof needed to be set diagonally: a radical move for the time, but with clear functional justification. Similarly radical functional thinking also developed in other details. Gowan conceived the idea of laying the floor as a series of great concrete slabs placed directly on the ground, so that any one could be lifted in future to make a foundation to a machine, and one can imagine Parkes’s delight at the pragmatic logic.5 Along the rear edge an extra storey was added for the lighter and smaller electrical and aerodynamics workshops, and it was made to overhang to allow a long loading bay at the rear directly accessible from above using cranes within the building.