UEA Library at 50 (1968-2018). Lasdun and Guttsman, key figures in our making

Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) – Architect

Architect of UEA Library, the Ziggurats and the National Theatre.

“I came into the room at the exact point, I think, when the Vice-Chancellor was talking about the final plan. There is no final plan ever in planning, with respect.”¹

Lasdun – the man who loved concrete – proposed building the Library in two phases, with the original block doubling in size to form a near square.

Early years
Lasdun enrolled as a student at the Architectural Association in 1932. His interests included the work of two radical architects, Le Corbusier & Nicholas Hawksmoor; Cubism and contemporary painting. He worked at the office of Wells Coates, architect of the modernist Isokon Flats² in Lawn Road, London; and with Berthold Lubetkin, the leader of England’s Modern movement.³

UEA
Denys LasdunHe was appointed UEA architect in 1963 and got on well with the Librarian, Willi Guttsman. Original designs were modified to create a calmer study space and even the more northerly location near Senate House was abandoned to bring the Library away from roads and to leave ample room for expansion.

The Library, when opened for use in 1968, was praised as one of the most spacious and relaxed in atmosphere of any of the new university libraries.4

An energetic run up the main staircase of the Library takes one past a large lightbox portrait of Lasdun in his later years. Surrounded by his favourite concrete he keeps a steady watch.

William Leo (Willi) Guttsman (1920-1998) – Founding Librarian

“Speaking personally I felt exhilarated when sometime in the summer of 1962, after my appointment but before starting work at UEA, I read of Lasdun’s nomination as University Architect. I saw in the selection of someone so committed to the philosophy of architectural modernism as he was, a guarantee that the New Universities, or at least UEA, would be willing to break with tradition and strike out in new directions.”

So spoke Guttsman of his recollections of Lasdun in 19975.

UEA.S.1.1.48

Guttsman could arguably be hailed as the second ‘architect’ of the Library for it was he who had such a direct influence on its final position on campus (a quieter more southerly position away from roads with plenty of surrounding space for expansion), the arrangement of the integrated reading floors and the development of a rich research collection. Lasdun described Guttsman as ‘the most exacting of clients’ yet they got on well.

UEA.S.1.3.70

Guttsman influenced the siting of the Library away from busy roads

Guttsman escaped from Berlin to Britain in 1938. He lost both parents in the Holocaust. He worked at the London School of Economics before coming to UEA in 1962. Victor Morgan6 has described him as an endearingly unselfconscious individual who spoke with a strong German accent, rode a rickety bicycle and had an indecipherable hand. There was also humanity. Willi was never an establishment figure.

His interest in ideas, modern art and architecture projected an image of continental intellectualism, yet Guttsman saw himself as committedly British. A scholar-librarian, he wrote important historical studies on the British ruling elite and German social democracy.

Guttsman has been remembered fondly:

“The Library should have been named ‘The Guttsman Library’, after its remarkable first Librarian. After Willi’s death I tried to get his name attached to the library he’d founded, but in vain.

My chief memory is that when I arrived in 1966 to launch the study of French in EUR, Willi agreed with me that the Library should acquire the complete works of every major French writer (including the ‘Marquis de Sade’). Whereas other university libraries have only patchy representation of French literature, UEA, thanks to Willi, has the lot.”

John Fletcher, author and translator
Professor Emeritus (French and Comparative Literature), UEA
Honorary Senior Research Fellow in French, University of Kent

A portrait of Guttsman hangs in the Silent Reading Room on Floor 02.

1Denys Lasdun in presenting the revised Development Plan to the Executive Committee at an Extra-ordinary meeting held on 30 September 1963.
2The archive of the Isokon Flats is held in UEA Archives.
3Article by Peter Dormer, The Independent, p.20, 25/5/1994.
4The History of the University of East Anglia by Michael Sanderson. 2002.
5Denys Lasdun at UEA: a recollection by W.G. Guttsman, 1997.
6Victor Morgan. Guardian, 20/4/98.

Independent obituary

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