Central Hall, University of York


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Campus West, University Of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD


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Statutory Address:
Campus West, University Of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

York (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Central lecture and recreation hall to the University of York, 1966-1968 by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners (RMJM) with Stirrat Johnson-Marshall and Andrew Derbyshire as partners in charge, and John Speight as job architect

Reasons for Designation

Central Hall, constructed in 1966-1968 to designs by RMJM, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Historic interest:

* it forms part of a wave of seven new universities that improved access to higher education and marked the high point of publicly-funded architecture in post-war Britain;

* it is a physical manifestation of the University of York Development Plan, which was heralded as the beginning of contemporary university planning in Britain;

* it continues a historic tradition established by late-C19/early-C20 'red brick' universities of featuring a great hall for special events.

Architectural interest:

* it has an imaginative and bold design with a striking architectural form and massing that is the focus of the most dramatic views across the campus lake;

* it is the university's architectural tour de force and centrepiece building;

* its reinforced concrete construction acts as a foil to the colleges and provides a striking contrast to their CLASP construction;

* it was designed by RMJM, the only architectural practice to design four universities in Britain, with the notable mid-C20 architects, Stirrat Johnson-Marshall and Andrew Derbyshire as partners-in-charge;

* it successfully fulfils its design brief of being a multipurpose building with features, such as retractable seating and a removable sectional stage that enable a versatile and flexible space;

* despite some later alteration it retains its overall character, form and key features.

Group value:

* it has strong group value with other listed features on the campus, including Heslington Hall (Grade II*), the numerous Grade II structures in the hall's formal gardens, Derwent College (Grade II), former Langwith College (Grade II), the covered walkway linking the former Langwith College to Central Hall and Vanbrugh College (Grade II), Grade II listed sculptures, and the Grade II registered designed landscape.


After several previous attempts at establishing a university in York had failed, in 1953 York Civic Trust and the Rowntree Trust launched the Institute of Archives and the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies (IAAS), which became key components of the York Academic Trust founded in 1958 in King’s Manor in the city centre. The administrator appointed to run both courses was John West-Taylor, who saw them as a stepping stone to the founding of a new university.

In April 1959 the University Grants Committee (UGC) set up a Sub-Committee on New Universities and invited applications from cities or groups of authorities wanting to promote new universities. York’s application was approved in April 1960, along with that of Norwich, with further approvals in the following year. The seven new universities in England (Sussex, York, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Warwick and Lancaster) differed from older institutions in that they were full universities supported by the UGC and setting their own degrees from the outset. All appointed well-respected architects to prepare detailed masterplans and to design the most important buildings, giving each a sense of unity and a distinctive identity.

In York the C16 Heslington Hall about 1.5 miles south-east of the city centre, which had been secured in 1958 by local benefactor John Bowes Morrell, was chosen as the site for the university and Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM) were appointed in 1961/1962 as masterplanners with Stirrat Johnson-Marshall and Andrew Derbyshire as partners in charge, working alongside the vice chancellor, West-Taylor and incoming professors to produce a detailed development plan. The hall was adapted as the administrative centre of the university in the first phase of building work in 1963-1965. More grounds were then acquired to the west and it was agreed on the need for a lake as a balancing reservoir to lower the dangerously high water table on the site. A younger RMJM partner, Maurice Lee, specialised in landscape design, which he produced here in conjunction with Herbert Francis (Frank) Clark, previously landscape architect to the Festival of Britain and a co-founder of the Garden History Society.

All the new universities experimented with new course structures, particularly in the growth area of social sciences, and this shaped the movement seen at Sussex, UEA and Essex towards pushing the teaching buildings together as megastructures. By contrast, York’s course structure was relatively traditional and collegiate, but enabled daytime teaching facilities and residential accommodation to be combined together so that they could share catering, common rooms and bars, encouraging a 24/7 atmosphere and maximising their usage and the available UGC grant. Buildings were to be of no more than four storeys so that the landscape remained dominant and the overall sense of place palpable.

The masterplan included groups of loose-knit college ranges, with the science laboratories behind them and landmark buildings, such as the library and Central Hall set within a careful pattern of circulation. The university was built in phases that progressed westwards from Heslington Hall, with development becoming more piecemeal as funding became more restricted. A shortage of building labour, expensive materials, and waterlogged ground required a lightweight construction solution in order to avoid expensive piling. In 1946-1947 Johnson-Marshall had devised a prefabricated system using steel frames and concrete panels used by Hertfordshire County Council for building schools, a critically acclaimed programme from which six surviving examples are listed. Its ideals informed the CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) system developed by Nottinghamshire County Council in 1954-1956. CLASP was designed as a lightweight and flexible structure that could ‘ride’ the mining of coal seams below them; the first CLASP building, Intake Farm School, Mansfield (Grade II) of 1955-1957 was called the ‘rock and roll school’. When York was designed CLASP was at the peak of its success and it was used for fire stations, health centres, libraries and offices. It is used in the design of many of the university’s buildings at York.

RMJM was the only architectural practice to design four universities: York, Bath, Stirling, and the University of Ulster at Coleraine, and it specialised in public sector work throughout the 1960s. It began to work outside Britain in the late 1960s and today is a massive international practice with offices in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as Europe.

Central Hall was designed as a multi-purpose assembly hall to be used for lectures, examinations, concerts, drama, ceremonial occasions and conferences in 1966-1968 by John Speight of RMJM with Michael Gibbs as assistant, Robert Owston as structural engineer and Henry Robert Humphreys as acoustical consultant. In contrast to the CLASP construction of the other original university buildings Central Hall has a reinforced concrete structure as CLASP could not be used because of the very large spans involved. RMJM's Andrew Derbyshire’s preference was also for in-situ structures for the university's one-off buildings.

The hall's increased use for concerts led to the installation of an assisted resonance system in 1973/1974 to provide a longer reverberation time so that the hall could be used for music. The technique of linked microphone-amplifier-loudspeaker units called channels was the first commercial installation after Humphreys’ associate Peter Parkin pioneered an experimental prototype at the Royal Festival Hall, London. RMJM adopted it in other public halls, notably the later Hexagon Theatre in Reading. Acousticians admire the system, but it has been disdained by purists and has since been removed from the Royal Festival Hall. Central Hall’s concrete was painted in around 2004. The hall is currently (2018) in the process of refurbishment.


Central lecture and recreation hall to the University of York, 1966-1968 by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners (RMJM) with Stirrat Johnson-Marshall and Andrew Derbyshire as partners in charge, and John Speight as job architect

MATERIALS: in-situ reinforced concrete, mild steel, mellow-red and blue brick, and aluminium.

PLAN: as its name suggests, Central Hall is set roughly to the centre of Campus West and is set upon a stepped terrace of mellow-red and blue brick surrounded by the campus lake on the north, west and south sides. It has an irregular hexagonal plan with canted sides facing the lake and a straight side to the east, and comprises a large auditorium set above a smaller ground-floor containing entrance and exhibition spaces.

EXTERIOR: the building is an in-situ reinforced concrete structure with a suspended mild steel tubular roof clad in aluminium. The upper floors, which contain the auditorium, are cantilevered out on the lake sides and the structural members of the tubular roof are exposed at the apex. A gallery/balcony runs around the building at first-floor level on the east side (now enclosed and subsumed into the building on this eastern side), rising to second-floor level on the lake sides, with wide external concrete stairs with tiled coverings incorporated to the north-east and south-east corners and replaced aluminium fire doors. Ribbon windows on the inside wall of the second-floor balcony light the auditorium in the style of a clerestory, and double doors provide access to the uppermost auditorium seating. The ground floor is mainly glazed; the windows on the lake sides were originally timber and cantilevered inwards at the top, but they have since been replaced by flush aluminium windows. Two glazed ground-floor projections to the north-west and south-west corners with mellow-red and blue-brick plinths contain stairs leading up to the auditorium. The main entrance is located on the eastern side of the building and is recessed underneath the upper floors and consists of a series of original timber glazed entrance doors, although at the time of writing these are due to be replaced by glazed aluminium doors. A canted lift shaft projection rises above the roofline on the east side and lies opposite the main entrance.

INTERIOR: at the time of writing (2018) the interior is in the process of being refurbished in three phases that are due to complete in June 2019 and works remain ongoing. Internally the main entrances lead into a central entrance lobby flanked by stair lobbies accessing north and south stairs that lead up to the first-floor auditorium. The central lobby leads through into a large foyer overlooking the lake on the ground floor with a brick-paved floor. The foyer has a dual function as an exhibition space and originally contained a central bar, but this has been removed. Brick-paved stairs in the north-west and south-west corners lead up from the foyer to the auditorium. A caretaker's office on the north side of the foyer entrance with a canted corner has been removed and a reception desk is due to be installed in its place. A correspondingly shaped former cleaner's store on the south side of the foyer entrance has also been removed and a new curved wall partition erected. Alongside the bare-brick east wall of the foyer are toilets. Above the main foyer is an auditorium, which is currently hidden from view by scaffolding. The auditorium has tiered seating for 1250 people on the canted sides of the building, which is arranged around a removable sectional stage and an orchestra pit cover. The exposed steel roof has moveable catwalks for maintenance and lighting. The seating is accessed by brick-paved stair flights and is retractable, enabling the space to be used for exhibitions and examinations when not in auditorium use. At the top of the seating tiers are doors leading out onto the second-floor wrap-around balcony. At the time of writing the seating is due to be removed and replaced by a new retractable system. The east wall of the auditorium is of mellow-red and blue brick with a central rectangular proscenium opening and beyond is the stage foyer. The foyer originally led out onto the external first-floor eastern balcony, but the balcony has been subsumed into the main building on this side to create storage areas. Above the stage foyer and former east balcony on the second floor are dressing rooms, toilets and a rehearsal room, along with an internal balcony overlooking the auditorium. On the third floor above are plant and storage rooms.



This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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