Looking at Buildings

, printed from the Looking at Buildings website on Monday 19th August 2019

Wills Tower

PerpendicularGlossary Term [1] style. The majestic tower is a major landmark and in Pevsner's words, "a tour de force in GothicGlossary Term [2] 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 [3] entirely in favour of stone, the structure throughout is of ferro-concreteGlossary Term [4], 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.

plinthGlossary Term [5] beneath a two stage composition. Two vast windows fill each face, the upper stage having three lights beneath a blind traceryGlossary Term [6] head. Chunky buttresses claspGlossary Term [7] the angles, and thin pinnacles mask the transition to octagonal turrets with beautifully judged concave caps. The octagonal lanternGlossary Term [8] with delicate traceried panellingGlossary Term [9] 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 [10] 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 [11], 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.

Last updated: Monday, 26th January 2009