Wills Tower

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Bristol, University, Wills Tower

The University of Bristol's main building by Sir George Oatley, 1912-25, houses an entrance hall, great hall, libraries, and council chamber, all in a monumental PerpendicularGlossary Term style. The majestic tower is a major landmark and in Pevsner's words, "a tour de force in GothicGlossary Term Revival, so convinced, so vast, and so competent that one cannot help feeling respect for it", despite being wholly backward looking in spirit. University College was founded in 1876 largely by Revd. John Percival and Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, with donations from wealthy local Liberals and Nonconformists. University College offered non-degree courses in sciences, languages, engineering, history and literature. It gained University status in 1909 following a donation of £100,000 from Henry Overton Wills (1828-1911), incremented to £160,000 with many smaller sums. He was made the first Chancellor and is still regarded as the University's founder. Following their father's death, Sir George Arthur Wills and Henry Herbert Wills commissioned the building as his memorial, demanding that Oatley build to last. Contrary to the myth that Oatley rejected concreteGlossary Term entirely in favour of stone, the structure throughout is of ferro-concreteGlossary Term, faced with Bath stone and carvings in Clipsham stone. Designed 1912-14, building began 1915-16, and completed 1919-25 at a cost of approximately £501,000.

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Bristol, University, Wills Tower

"The 215 ft. tower is dramatically sited, angled and set forward on its plot at the top of Park Street. Seen from College Green, the whole height is framed by the stepped buildings of Park Street. Oatley composed this consciously, pencilling his design onto a photograph. The main door nestles in the plinthGlossary Term beneath a two stage composition. Two vast windows fill each face, the upper stage having three lights beneath a blind traceryGlossary Term head. Chunky buttresses claspGlossary Term the angles, and thin pinnacles mask the transition to octagonal turrets with beautifully judged concave caps. The octagonal lanternGlossary Term with delicate traceried panellingGlossary Term houses Great George, a bell of over nine tons.

The fine carving was designed in collaboration with Jean Hahn of King's Heath Guild, Birmingham, whose big, lively gargoyle-likeGlossary Term masks portray identifiable members of the University staff. Everything is subordinated to the bold composition necessary at this scale. What can be said against it? Compared with medieval towers, the proportions are too broad in relation to the height, but this gives majestic solidity to the distant silhouette and can hardly be described as a fault. The traceried panels to the buttresses appear pasteboard-thin. The octagon's traceried panels, although correctly PerpendicularGlossary Term, are wiry and repetitive, and perhaps less inventive than Scott at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The design is often compared with the Boston Stump, but Oatley always denied any influence.


Blind tracery

Tracery applied to a solid wall.


(Consortium Local Authorities Special Programme): A kind of system building using light steel framing, suitable for schools etc., employed in the United Kingdom from the 1950s.


Composition of cement (calcined lime and clay), aggregate (small stones and rock chippings), sand and water. It can be poured into formwork or shuttering (temporary framing of timber or metal) on site (in-situ concrete) or pre-cast as components before construction. Reinforced: incorporating steel rods to take the tensile force. Pre-stressed: with tensioned steel rods. Finishes include the impression of boards left by formwork (board-marked or shuttered), and texturing with steel brushes (brushed or bush-hammered), picks or hammers (pick-hammered or hammer-dressed).


Projecting water spout often carved into human or animal shape.


The style of the Middle Ages from the later 12th century to the Renaissance, with which it co-existed in certain forms into the 17th century. Characterized in its full development by the pointed arch, the rib-vault and an often skeletal masonry structure for churches, combined with large glazed windows. The term was originally associated with the concept of the barbarian Goths as assailants of classical civilization.


Circular or polygonal windowed turret crowning a roof or a dome. Also the windowed stage of a crossing tower lighting a church interior.


Wooden lining to interior walls, made up of vertical members (muntins) and horizontals (rails) framing panels; also called wainscot. Raised and fielded: with the central area of the panel (field) raised up. Also used for stonework treated with sunk or raised panels.


English version of late Gothic, developed from the 1320s, which continued into the early 16th century; sometimes abbreviated to Perp. Characterised by large windows with a grid pattern of mullions and transoms, with the mullions continuing to the head to the arch, which is often of flattened or four-centred form. This motif of panel tracery is used also for wall decoration, and on the fan vaults that were used for the most prestigious buildings.


Projecting courses at the foot of a wall or column, generally cut back (chamfered) or moulded at the top.