Universities for commuters

I remember learning in my 2nd year course Architectural History 2B: Order & the City about ‘commuters’ universities’ – at least that’s the phrase that somehow got stuck in my brain. These were the universities from the “red brick” wave, in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Examples: Newcastle University (est. 1834 as the School of Medicine and Surgery), University of Liverpool (est. 1881 as a college, awarded Royal Charter in 1903), University of Leeds (est. 1831 as Leeds School of Medicine, 1904 awarded Royal Charter), University of Manchester, or University of Sheffield. Some consider the University of Liverpool the OG red brick because of E. Allison Peers aka Bruce Truscot and what he wrote in his 1943 book Redbrick University.

Newcastle University’s signature arches, back in 1964. Architect: W.H. Knowles. Construction finished in 1911.
(creative commons) (sorry, I know they’re grey)

Newcastle University’s well-known Arches were erected in 1911 in the neo-Jacobean style. The best fact about the Arches is that they were replicated on the Newcastle University campus in Johor, Malaysia. The effect is rather comical, but hey, if you’re a red brick, you’ve got to show it. Indulge yourself here: The Arches, Newcastle University Special Collections blog (2 June 2021).

A lot of the other red bricks are red bricks not so much in the neo-Jacobean, but in the Gothic Revival style. Leeds has got the Great Hall, Liverpool has the Victoria Building, Manchester’s got the Contact Theatre… ok I’m kidding… the Whitworth Hall, if you wish. The Whitworth is not so much red brick as sandstone, but there’s also the Dover Street Building, which is very much red brick and Gothick too. Brick is one of the things I admire the most in England and the main reason I like England more than Scotland. Soz, Whitworth, but the sandstone just doesn’t cut it. Sanstone is the colour of piss or dirty underwear and you just can’t convince me otherwise. (Similar goes for magnolia. But I do like living in communal architecture, so I have to repeat to myself that its paleness contrasts nicely with the dark blue fittings).

Victoria building at the University of Liverpool. Architect: Alfred Waterhouse. Construction: 1889-1892.
© Historic England Archive/Mr Brendan Oxlade LRPS ref: 213789

All of these universities seem to have undergone transformations with regards to the structure and naming of the institutions. There was a lot of merging and re-forming – of schools of particular disciplines within one city (e.g. medicine and physical sciences in Newcastle), and the extraction of colleges from the federal Victoria University – a university that is now non-existent, but in its day had consisted of university colleges in Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds. Where I am now, the University of Brighton, has a similar history of starting sometime in the 19th century as a something-school, then a something-else-school was founded, then they were merged into something-academy-or-other-name, until finally receiving university status in 1992. But Brighton is part of a different generation, one called the “plate-glass university”, because clearly, it lacks the swaggy signature red brick that Red Brick Universities have. What it lacks in architectural swag, it makes up for in the swag of Brighton people, the fisherman hat being the ultimate Brighton trophy.

Aside from that red brick universities were built of red brick, I remember learning that a lot of these universities had urban campuses and so their provision for students differed from institutions like the University of Cambridge or Oxford. A word that appeared simultaneously with “red brick” was “civic”, as in a civic university that existed to make higher education serve a democratic purpose in the development of citizenship, rather than serving just the privileged minority, as it had been so far with the HE scene limited to places like Cambridge and Oxford. That’s because “civic” relates to both “city” and “citizen” (Barnett, in Vallance 2016, p17). In a more general sense, another bunch of universities across Europe could be described as civic in the “sense of having been founded as municipal institutions with strong roots in the culture of the cities in which they are located” (Vallance 2016, p16). These universities often had strong links to industry (because hello, cities were industrial beasts in the 19th century – it wasn’t knowledge economy just yet).

Great Hall, University of Leeds. Architect: Alfred Waterhouse. Construction: 1884-1894.
Photo by Betty Longbottom / CC BY-SA 2.0

But what interests me about this is that these universities were not like Cambridge and Oxford in the sense that they were happy-go-lucky rural retreats for the big brains, where everyone lived together, ate together, and chilled together on neatly cut lawns discussing big brain stuff like Socrates or Locke or Newton or whatnot. I remember learning about the architecture of those universities and that they were made of red brick (I think we’ve established that), but also that they had social rooms for students and staff commuting into the university.

And that’s where I was going with this. I’m a commuter now. I get the first morning bus every Tuesday (unless the UCU strikes are on) and either go into Starbucks or Costa or something or into the common room in Pavilion Parade, and stay on campus until 8pm because that’s when my last lecture finishes. Because I live outside the city, I rely on the common room for lunch and for shelter when I’ve got time to kill because I’m waiting for my next bus, but it’s miserable outside or just too windy or wet. The common room provides the basic architecture of shelter, and the basic infrastructure of a place to prepare hot drinks or food – although I still think that stołówki studenckie or bary mleczne should be available here, too, because I appreciate the £4 fish-and-chips, but what I really want is a £1 bowl of soup. Or pierogi, I don’t know. Something tasty that doesn’t rely on lemongrass or curry powder to taste good.

It’s really quite riveting to be a commuter. I remember that in middle school a few people from my year commuted into our school from outside my city, some on municipal buses, some on regional trains, and while I did not question the existence of whatever suburbs or villages they were from, I think the idea of not living where you were going to school remained abstract to me nonetheless. The situation I was in last year, when I studied from home while all teaching at my university was remote, was different from that – there was no school for me to go to, so commuting wasn’t necessary either – or rather it wasn’t possible at all, since campus buildings were shut. But I know that people commuted into Edinburgh before covid and it felt quite romantic to me – they were able to get top-class education without the burden of living in whatever drab accommodation Edinburgh threw at you, buggering off to forests green and suburbs deep to possibly forget that the City of Edinburgh even existed. (Yes, I didn’t like living in Edinburgh all that much. It’s ugly and looks like piss, too).

So the romanticism of living in the suburbs goes quite well with the romanticism of stealing peeks at the dome of the Royal Pavilion and the ankles of passers-by while sitting by the window in the basement common room at Pavilion Parade. And now my life has gained this sort of romantic hue, and while there’s little red brick around to make me feel like I live in the North, there’s at least the Cockroft Building with handsome dark grey brick with white grout and square miles of glass that blinds you when it’s sunny – plate-glass university, for sure. But the view from my dorm window is definitely a Cottage Picturesque or something like that, because I see hills, sometimes I see cows, and a lot of the time I feel like I live in Henford-on-Bagley when I look out the window, so I guess… well, my feelings about all those university styles remain as mixed as they were before, so it’d be best if I ended this post right now.

I guess I could call this series “Spilling the UniversiTea”, because what arises from writing about universities is all the controversial drama like who is the actual third-oldest university in England; who is plate-glass and who is red-brick (kind of like the Gen Z vs Millennial debate – or maybe you’re a cusper?); or does the Russell Group status really matter or is it just a gimmick. (I’d say it matters, but I wouldn’t take a bullet for this opinion). (By the way, I’m not much of a fan of this ‘spilling the tea’ metaphor because I despise all that has to do with TikTok – with the exception of these TikToks – but it just is so appropriate here).


Newcastle University. “History of Newcastle University”. n.d. https://www.ncl.ac.uk/who-we-are/history/ [Accessed 28/2/2022]

Newcastle University. “The Arches”. Special Collections. 2021, 2 June. https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/speccoll/2021/06/02/the-arches/ [Accessed 28/2/2022]

Edgar Allison. Ann L. Mackenzie and Adrian R. Allan (eds.) Redbrick University revisited: the autobiography of ‘Bruce Truscot’. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996. https://archive.org/details/redbrickuniversi00peer/mode/2up [Accessed 2/3/2022]

Paul Vallance. Chapter 2. “The historical roots and development of the civic university.” The Civic University. The Policy and Leadership Challenges. Ellen Hazelkorn, John Goddard, Louise Kempton, Paul Vallance (eds.) Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016.

William Whyte. Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.


Published by kotersey

Graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First in geography, and from the University of Brighton with a Master's in history of design and material culture. Probably drinking iced coffee and thinking about buildings.

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