Derwent College, University of York


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


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Statutory Address:
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:


University college. Built in 1963-1965 to the design of the architects Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM), with Stiratt Johnson-Marshall and Andrew Derbyshire as the partners in charge, in association with the CLASP Development Team. The cast relief artist was Fred Millett. The structural engineers were Scott and Wilson, Kirkpatrick and Partners, and the contractor was F Shepherd and Son.

Reasons for Designation

Derwent College, built at the University of York in 1963-1965 to the design of the architects Robert Matthew and Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM), is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Historic interest:

* as one of a wave of new universities that improved access to higher education and marked the highpoint of publicly-funded architecture in post-war Britain; * as a physical manifestation of the University of York Development Plan, which was heralded as the beginning of contemporary university planning in Britain.

Architectural interest:

* the University of York is arguably the greatest work of the influential architects Sir Stiratt Johnson-Marshall and Sir Andrew Derbyshire of RMJM, the only practice to design four universities in Britain; * for the innovative combination of teaching and social facilities as well as residential accommodation in a single college, enabling it to instantly function as a university and allow for expansion by adding further colleges on the same principles; * Derwent and Langwith Colleges were the first university buildings to be erected using the CLASP prefabricated system, a model for a rapidly-built, economical and standardised form of welfare state architecture, which had never been used on this scale before; * the relationship of massing and height of the college to its neighbour in Langwith College, Heslington Hall, and the landscape, as well as their layout, are exceptionally well-thought-out; * for the six sculptural relief panels by the artist Fred Millett, which add flourish to the main pedestrian walkway.

Group value:

* with the Grade II*-listed Heslington Hall, as well as the former Langwith College, the covered walkway to the west of that college, Central Hall, two sculptures by Austin Wright (‘Dryad’ and ‘Untitled’), and the designed landscape, which are all listed at Grade II.


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 setting their own degrees and supported by the UGC 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. 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 Lord (Eric) James of Rusholme, 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.

Derwent College was built in December 1963 to July 1965 as part of the first phase of new buildings of the University of York Development Plan, which also included Langwith College and the chemistry department. The exceptionally-detailed development plan was heralded as the beginning of contemporary university planning in Britain (Dober 1966, 48). At its simplest, the aim was to provide for the social and psychological well-being of the students by generating a sense of community. This was embodied at Derwent by combining teaching and social facilities as well as residential accommodation in a single college for 400 people, including 300 undergraduates, of whom about 200 were provided with study bedrooms. The plan enabled the college to instantly function as a university, whilst making it easy to expand year on year by adding further colleges on the same principles. Integral to it was the use of the CLASP system. In the early 1960s it seemed to fulfil the ideal of an economical, flexible system of building that was as efficient as building a car or airplane; the modernists’ ideal since Le Corbusier first wrote of it in Vers Une Architecture in 1923. More widely, it was deemed as the means of producing a good quality, standardised welfare state architecture, which could be rapidly constructed and rolled out to serve all those that needed it. CLASP went through several versions, with Marks 1 and 2 being the prototypes. A lighter frame was introduced in 1961 but was then quickly modified with better windows as Mark 3B, adopted at Derwent and Langwith Colleges. The university architects worked in association with the CLASP Development Team co-ordinated by the architect David Parkes during the design and building work. The system ensured the buildings were built both to cost and time; a major problem at other new universities. A distinctive oriel window and pyramidal roof lights were developed specifically for the university, and a grey Trent River Gravel exposed aggregate finish was chosen. Additional flourishes were given by the use of sculptural reliefs designed by the artist Fred Millett. The overall result was deemed a success in the architectural press, though limited insulation from sound caused some subsequent issues in the light structures.

Derwent College continues in use in 2018, although it has been combined with the former Langwith College into a single college. Several of the study bedrooms are now in use as offices, and the café bar, dining hall and several of the teaching rooms, including a lecture theatre, have been refurbished within the last few years.


University college. Built in 1963-1965 to the design of the architects Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM), with Stiratt Johnson-Marshall and Andrew Derbyshire as the partners in charge, in association with the CLASP Development Team. The cast relief artist was Fred Millett. The structural engineers were Scott and Wilson, Kirkpatrick and Partners, and the contractor was F Shepherd and Son.

MATERIALS: the construction is a variant of the CLASP Mark 3B system developed by Nottinghamshire County Council for schools and other local authority buildings. It comprises a cold-rolled steel frame clad in pre-cast concrete panels with a Trent River Gravel exposed aggregate finish, softwood-framed windows with aluminium opening lights including projecting oriels, and flat felt-covered roofs.

PLAN: the college is orientated north-west to south-east and is situated immediately to the north-west of Heslington Hall (dating from 1565), the original administrative centre of the university. It overlooks an artificial lake to the west and is set around an open rectangular courtyard at the north and an open rectangular pool at the south. The communal and teaching accommodation is concentrated in a two-storey central nucleus around which are arranged three and four storey residential wings. A pedestrian walkway runs through the complex and links it via covered ways to the adjoining buildings on the campus. A double-height foyer and dining hall form the centre of the broadly ‘L’-shaped service and teaching core, from which project the three ‘L’-shaped wings to the north-west, south-east and, linked only by a walkway across the pool, a wing to the south. To the east of the central foyer and hall is a café bar, kitchen and a lecture theatre, while to the west towards the lake projects a block containing common rooms, teaching rooms and offices. The residential wings contain study bedrooms and communal facilities grouped off staircases reached from the main pedestrian route.

EXTERIOR: an asymmetrical composition; at the centre is the two-storey broadly ‘L’-shaped service and teaching core, from which project the ‘L’-shaped residential blocks of three and four storeys. The treatment of the elevations is similar throughout. The exterior walls are formed of precast concrete panels with a Trent River Gravel exposed aggregate finish attached to steel box stanchions and beams supporting wooden floors internally. A slight variation in texture and projection of the concrete panels differentiates the horizontal floor bands from the vertically set room height panels. There are dry joints between the panels, which have angled drainage channels at their edges, and are set upon a moulded precast concrete plinth. The fenestration to the residential blocks includes a mixture of narrow, half-width windows, and wider, full-width windows, occupying the place of a full precast panel, with a central sliding aluminium light between top and bottom transoms. These are also combined into larger, one-and-a-half width windows with an off centre mullion, or double-width windows; most divided by transoms to conform to the tripartite glazing pattern. Colour is provided by white and blue vitreous enamel panels occupying the positions of the lower subsidiary lights in several of these windows. Further variety is provided by projecting full-width oriel windows, some to the south towards Heslington Hall renewed. All the windows of the south-east residential wing have been replaced with black PVC frames and panels but these correspond to the original glazing pattern. There are flush timber doors and softwood glazed doors providing entry into the blocks at ground level. The main entrances along the walkway have had steel-framed glazed automatic doors fitted in around 1990 and renewed in about 2014, which are not of special interest.

The elevations towards the lake and open pool are, for the most-part, raised over ground-floor pilotis whilst the other elevations are flush to the ground floor. The central service and teaching core, including the dining hall, common rooms and former first-floor library, are treated with wider expanses of glazing, comprising combinations of multiple lights but replicating the tripartite pattern. Attached to the rear of the kitchen and servery is a single-storey extension, which runs the length of the kitchen but is a single bay wide, with an entrance raised on pilotis to provide service access for deliveries. At ground floor level, in close proximity to the main walkway running through the college, are six sculptural relief panels in cast concrete by Fred Millett. These comprise abstract shapes forming a variety of textures and patterns, which are enlivened by artificial light at night. They have the dual purpose of hiding the steel wind braces that support the structural frame. Outside the dining hall is a stone plaque within an incised inscription that commemorates the opening of the college by HRH Queen Elizabeth II on 22 October 1965. The blocks have flat felt-covered roofs with an extruded aluminium eaves capping. Maintenance and emergency access is provided by square timber-boarded roof porches. Originally there were 25 sharply-pointed pyramidal rooflights, comprising a combination of facetted solid panels and glazing, over the foyer and dining hall but these have been removed or replaced with shallow-pitched polycarbonate lights. Protective steel rails have been added around the perimeter of some of the roofs and are not of special interest.

The covered walkways linking the blocks are constructed of pilotis with precast concrete panels forming a fascia to the flat felt-covered roofs; these are built on the CLASP system. However, where they extend beyond the college to meet the neighbouring buildings the walkways are non-CLASP, comprising steel columns supporting I-beams and timber joists carrying a timber-boarded roof with timber fascias and a felt roof covering. These were designed by the main architects in conjunction with the architect Dick Howard. They incorporate a central overhead services duct constructed of timber, which carries electrical wiring, television and telephone cables between the buildings. The covered walkway extending to the south-east to Heslington Hall is included in the listing. The main pedestrian route is paved in concrete slabs, which continue through the blocks underneath the recently-added tiled carpets. Where it skirts the outside of the open pool, the walkway forms a concrete bridge above a weir constructed of quarry-faced squared stone. Water runs down from the shallow rectangular pool with regularly placed fountains at the east to the artificial lake at the west. In front of the junior common room is a terrace paved in cast-stone slabs and approached by steps to the west, which is included in the listing. There is further hard landscaping in the form of pebbled slopes flanking the walkway where it links to Heslington Hall, which is also included. The semi-enclosed north court is partly paved in cast-stone slabs and also features an original mushroom-shaped concrete light.

INTERIOR: the college has retained most of its original internal layout, room functions and floor plan. The north-west entrance leads along the pedestrian walkway past a residential block and the north courtyard, which is enclosed on three sides, to the double-height central foyer, café bar and dining hall. Above the entrance to the foyer is a decorative ceramic sculptural relief by the artist John Langton and ceramicist David Lloyd-Jones. The café bar and dining hall have been refurbished and contain modern fixtures and fittings from the 2010s, which are not of special interest. The dining hall retains an original parquet floor and has a false ceiling, which has been inserted beneath which the original still survives. On the ground floor, immediately to the east of the dining hall is a servery and kitchen. Next to the kitchen is a lecture room, which was refurbished in around 2016. On the first floor, above the kitchen and lecture room, is a suite of academic offices. To the west of the central foyer are: a lecture theatre, common rooms and offices on the ground floor, with a classroom, a seminar room, and further offices occupying the space of the former library on the first floor; these rooms largely contain modern fittings, which are not of special interest. The pedestrian walkway continues south-east from the central foyer and leads outside and around the open pool, then past two residential blocks to continue towards Heslington Hall. The residential blocks (now referred to as Blocks ‘A’ to ‘D’) contain study bedrooms grouped off staircases on each floor, including one and two person bedrooms and flats. The original heater and washer units and wardrobes, the only built-in items, have largely been removed and the fixtures and fittings within these rooms are not of special interest. The groupings share communal kitchens, largely containing modern fittings, as well as laundry rooms, showers and bathrooms. A few study bedrooms have been converted to offices; these mostly on the ground floor of the north-west block (Block ‘A’).

Among the surviving original fixtures and fittings to the college are: linoleum floors, flush timber doors and glazed softwood doors, plasterboard or plastic-faced plywood partitions, softwood glazed screens and plasterboard or timber suspended ceilings. The internal staircases have precast concrete stair treads and landing units fixed to steel stringers and landing beams, raking steel balustrades and timber handrails. Some retain the original rubber treads to the stairs and landings.

Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the following are not of special architectural or historic interest: the steel roof rails, lamp posts, air conditioning units, the automatic doors, the steel handrails, and the modern timber decking to the north courtyard of Derwent College. Internally, the fixtures and fittings within the study bedrooms and flats, communal kitchens, laundry rooms, showers and bathrooms, lecture room and offices, as well as those within the kitchen and servery are not of special interest. The café bar and dining hall were refurbished in the 2010s and these later fixtures and fittings, in addition to the modern reception desks and disabled lift, are also not of special interest.


Books and journals
Birks, T, Building the new universities, (1972), 61-71
Harwood, E, Space, Hope and Brutalism, English Architecture 1945-79, (2015), 258-259, 627-628, 649
Muthesias, S, The Post War University: Utopianist Campus and College, (2000), 128-138
Pevsner, N, Neave, D, Neave, S, Hutchinson, J, The Buildings of England. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, (2005), 462-466
Saint, A, Towards a Social Architecture: The Role of School-Building in Post-War England, (1987), 214-222
'University of York' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 143, No.17, (15 December 1965), 1435-1458
'Buildings Revisited: York University' in Architect's Journal, , Vol. 155, No.8, (23 February 1972), 415-426
'York University: Five Years Old' in Perspective East Yorkshire, , Vol. 23, (September - October 1967), 534-552


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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