The Chamberlain Legacy


Standing proudly, and visible from miles around the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus, is the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial clock tower – or Old Joe, to give him his more colloquial title.


Based on the Torre del Mangia in Siena and at once the tallest, and the most memorable feature of the campus, he will soon preside over a new wave of buildings and developments on the site, which will look forward to delivering the facilities which students and staff at the University need in the 21st century – while offering a nod towards to the visions of the architects of yesteryear who have made the campus what it is today.

Old Joe is only one of the cluster of redbrick buildings which stand at the centre of the University campus. Yet, when architects Aston Webb and Ingress Bell originally planned the campus at the start of the 20th century, they envisaged more than were subsequently completed. Their masterplan, and, indeed, the vision of the University’s first Chancellor Joseph Chamberlain, was for a statuesque redbrick semi circle, with a line of redbrick buildings on the far side of the clock tower, completing a D shape in the middle of the University lawns.

In fact, Joseph Chamberlain, also Mayor of Birmingham in the late 19th century, remarked: “When these buildings are complete, they will be the best of their kind in Europe and perhaps the world.”

These first buildings were – and, of course, still are – monumental, expressing pride and confidence. The earliest buildings on the campus still give the extended campus a focus today, sat, as they are, on top of a mound. Viewed from the Bristol Road and the University’s pitches below, the buildings form a remarkable site – and have been likened to both a hilltop town or a Byzantine monastery.

The envisaged D though, was never completed although both the Aston Webb building and the clock tower were opened in 1909 – but in 2012, the University’s brand new music building and concert hall, the Bramall Music Building, was opened to great acclaim – finally completing the semi circle, which had stood for over 100 years with the final piece of Aston Webb’s jigsaw missing.

The Bramall Music building was one of 52 buildings in the UK and Europe to receive a RIBA Award in June 2013 for architectural excellence. Home to the state-of-the-art, 450-seat Elgar Concert Hall and new residence for the University’s world renowned Department of Music, the building, designed by Glenn Howells Architects, was specifically recognised for its sympathy to the original redbrick buildings. This recognition highlighted that a thorough understanding of the geometry and detailed construction of the existing buildings, with great attention to detail and materials has resulted in a very successful modern reinterpretation of the original buildings’ style.


The Bramall building is now the forerunner to a whole sweep of developments which are now underway at the University – and many of these developments will be open to members of the local community and visitors, as well as staff and students, as of course, is the Bramall, which now hosts numerous concerts throughout the year.

When Chamberlain proposed the establishment of the University of Birmingham, he wanted to complete his vision for the city. Chamberlain sought to provide ‘a great school of universal instruction’, so that ‘the most important work of original research should be continuously carried on under most favourable circumstances.’ It was his ambition that ‘the individual trades of the new University [would] forever associate their name and their industry with this new institution.’

Many aspects of Chamberlain’s vision continue to inspire and guide the University today, including the continuing responsibilities to the region, providing a skilled, professional workforce and groundbreaking research that benefits regional industries.

The building work now underway at the University is a tangible and very visible reminder of this vision, as the developments encompass a vast range of projects – from a secondary school, to a new sports centre, from research capability, to spaces for links with industry.

But the changes happening on the main Edgbaston campus are those which will reinterpret that original architectural masterplan by Aston Webb and his colleagues – and, for that matter, all subsequent masterplans for the campus since. A new sports centre on the corner of the Bristol Road and Edgbaston Park Road will contain Birmingham’s first 50m swimming pool. The centre, which will be open to community members as well as the staff and students of the University, will provide a natural starting point for anyone wishing visit the main campus, at the busy intersection on the A38. New walkways from the sports centre into Chancellor’s Court and beyond will ensure that finding one’s way around the sizeable campus is an easy and pleasurable affair.

Cross through Chancellor’s Court, the landscaped area within the redbrick semi circle, and a new library under construction on University Square will eventually border a striking green park which will be opened up at the very heart of the historic site. The library, which will provide outstanding facilities for a new generation of students and researchers, will also contain a cultural space for the University and the city, with an exhibition and event space and cafeteria open to all on the ground floor, overlooking the green park. Walking around the park, the views towards the clock tower, which architect William Haywood paid such careful attention to in the 1920s when he created walkways of tree-lined boulevards, will be restored, allowing for views of Old Joe to be as striking from the nearest areas of campus as they are from more distant vantage points such as Highgate or Quinton

The grand approach to the University from Prichatts Road that Lady Calthorpe had inaugurated in 1930   ©   Cadbury Research Library       

The grand approach to the University from Prichatts Road that Lady Calthorpe had inaugurated in 1930 © Cadbury Research Library