833/0/10149 GIBBET HILL ROAD
07-JUN-07 HOUSES FOR VISITING MATHEMATICIANS,
Group of five houses and two flats for visiting university academics. Built in 1968-70 to the designs of William Howell of Howell. Killick, Partridge and Amis [HKPA].
MATERIALS: Yellow-faced, Stourbridge bricks with a red core with timber window surrounds and flat, felted roofs.
PLAN: The buildings are arranged around a central circular lawn and joined by low walls at either side of the front doors. The houses are of two stories with a single-storey porch, store and laundry room at the front and a single-storey study to the rear. The block of flats is of two storeys without a study extension. All of the external corners are rounded. With this exception, both house and study blocks are square on plan and their height is approximately equal to the widths, giving the blocks a roughly cubic appearance. The central front door leads to a staircase hall and then through to the living room which incorporates a kitchen area. A link corridor, with lavatory off, leads to the study at the back of the house. At first floor level there are two bedrooms and a bathroom, with generous fitted cupboards to both the bedrooms and the landing. The block containing two flats does not have an extension for a study. However, the overall plan is broadly similar, except that the area which is a living room in the houses is here divided to create a bedroom and living room. All of the principal windows are placed facing clockwise to give privacy and so that the studies are not overlooked by other rooms in the house.
EXTERIOR: Each house and the block of flats has a single-storey porch range with a projecting entrance with heavy lintel which is the only opening on this face. The blank first-floor walling rises behind. The anti-clockwise face of each block is blank save for the small lavatory and bathroom windows and vents. The clockwise face, by contrast, has windows with chunky wooden frames to the study, corridor, living room and bedrooms and the laundry room. The study and living room and first-floor bedroom windows project from the body of the house and their flank walls are also curved.
INTERIOR: Brickwork, laid with emphatic horizontal joints, is also used throughout the interior, where it is painted white. The interior walls of the staircase and kitchen are also curved to match the external corners and the space created is used for ducting from the first-floor bathroom. The original kitchen furniture has been replaced, but the cupboards to the bedrooms, landings and passages remain unaltered allowing generous storage. The original sanitary ware to the bathrooms and lavatories is also in situ. Each block has a winder staircase with cantilevered, concrete treads set into the brick walls and metal balusters of square section with a simple, plastic-covered handrail. The staircase and study both have circular skylights with domed roofs and the studies each have their original blackboards, encircling the rooms with their light fittings and chalk rests.
HISTORY: Warwick University was founded in 1963 and the first professor of Mathematics was Christopher Zeeman, who came from Cambridge. He was keen to establish the department as a forceful entity and to found a strong graduate community, which he felt would be the bedrock of future development. With a grant of £88,000 from the Nuffield Foundation he was able to staff a Mathematics Research Centre, the main activity of which was to fund symposia. Zeeman explained its workings in his article "Early History of the Warwick Mathematics Institute" [cf. Sources]. He goes on in this article to outline how his vision for the symposia influenced the design of the Houses for Visiting Mathematicians:
"When the architect, Bill Howell, had been appointed I went to see him before he had started thinking. 'Each house must have a study' I said 'away from the main part of the house so that the mathematician can work undisturbed, and there must be blackboards round the walls.' 'How do you write in the corners where two walls meet?' he asked 'I suppose you could round the corners by building the blackboards out' I suggested. 'Better still' he replied 'I could build the walls in.' 'Fine - and put the blackboards low enough for small children to use the bottom bit'.
The partners in the firm of Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis first met when working for the LCC [London City Council] Architects Department and together worked on the plans for the Roehampton Lane Housing scheme in 1950. The constructional form used here with brick walls, rounded corners and heavy lintels was seen in the groups' earlier, unexecuted, scheme for low-rise housing in Kensington of 1955. From certain angles the individual blocks have the appearance of toy forts and it is interesting that Howell was sympathetic towards the playful designs of the High-Victorian architect, William Burges. The Houses for Visiting Mathematicians won the RIBA Architecture Award in 1970.
SOURCES: S. Cantacuzino, Howell Killick Partridge & Amis: Architecture (1981) p.92; Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman FRS, Early History of the Warwick Mathematics Institute (2004); Grant Lewiston and Rosalind Bellingham, Coventry New Architecture (1969), p.86; "Mathematics Research Centre, Warwick University", Building, 26 June 1970, pp. 51-56.
SUMMARY OF IMPORTANCE: This group of houses and flats was designed for the very particular function of accommodating academics attending mathematics symposia at Warwick University. Working outwards from the provision of study space with continuous blackboards, the architects, Howell, Killick, Partridge, and Amis, took this as their starting point to create a design which combined the practical considerations of privacy and family life, together with the more symbolic expression of a welcoming community, and devised an intricate plan of great clarity which maximised the small space. The buildings show a thoroughly considered approach to their siting and a masterful use of materials and detailing. Their placing at different compass points allows continuously shifting patterns of light to fall across flat and sinuous surfaces. This is an intact grouping which make a particularly strong architectural statement. The granting of the RIBA Architecture Award in 1970 shows the high regard in which the design was held by its contemporaries and it continues to be considered as amongst the very best works by this renowned architectural practice who were responsible for some of the best university buildings in the 1960s and 70s.