The Campus History Exhibition
A brief history of the development of the King's Buildings campus during its first century.
In December 2021, as part of the KB101 centenary celebrations, a King's Buildings history exhibition was mounted on panels outside The Nucleus Building. We have now made the information on the panels available online for those who have not yet had a chance to see them.
The exhibition consists of a series of aerial photographs of King's Buildings from 1920 onwards. Alongside each image we have included a brief description of the work undertaken at that time, showing how the campus has evolved over the last one hundred years.
At the bottom of this page you'll find a list of the permissions and constraints attached to each of the exhibition images. If you would like further information, or if you know of other aerial images, please contact us at the email address below.
The 115 acres of West Mains Farm, shortly before being purchased by the University in 1919. The main farm buildings (top, centre) will remain on the site for some years, and West Mains House (top) will sit opposite the campus until well into the 1970s.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the rapid expansion of science facilities in the Old College and surrounding premises had reached a critical point, relieved only temporarily by the removal of Mathematics to Chambers Street, and Agriculture and Forestry to George Square.
The Chemistry laboratories in the College had become hopelessly inadequate, and plans for a new Department of Chemistry in High School Yards had been abandoned at the outbreak of war in 1914. The Departments of Engineering and Geology were also seriously short of space in the centre of town, and new laboratory and experimental facilities were urgently required. The newly instituted Chair of Zoology in 1919 was also a trigger for expansion, requiring new accommodation.
Undergraduate teaching had taken place since 1894 at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill in the south of the city, and in 1919 the nearby West Mains Farm (opposite) was purchased by the University for the relocation and expansion of its science departments, with an initial emphasis on Chemistry, Zoology and Geology. 90 acres of the 115-acre site were set aside for development, the remainder being leased to the Craigmillar Golf Club.
Site preparation for the new Chemistry building began in November 1919.
King George V, who had endorsed the University's appeal for funding for its new buildings, delivers a speech behind the initial brick construction for the new Department of Chemistry building, at the ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone for what have become known as "The King's Buildings", at West Mains campus.
Queen Mary and various other dignitaries are also in view (the visit is taking place as part of the Royal couple's wedding anniversary), and the ceremony takes place in an Edinburgh downpour. The Edinburgh Evening News reports: "For the complete success of the event sunshine and warmth were needed. To-day was east-windy, cold, wet; Edinburgh was in her most ungenial aspect; she was, indeed, Tennyson’s 'grey Metropolis of the North'."
As part of the ceremony, the King gives his permission to use his name collectively for the science laboratories; at 2pm on the 6th of July 1920, The King’s Buildings campus officially comes into existence.
The foundation stone can be seen in this image, soon to be embedded in the main corridor of what will later be called the Joseph Black Building.
Construction of the new Chemistry building is underway in this earliest known aerial image of the campus, from which the southern section has still to be leased to the Craigmillar golf club. Buildings from West Mains steading are still on the site (to the left), while the surrounding residential areas have yet to appear. The boiler house chimney is the oldest structure on campus, pre-dating the opening of the Chemistry facility.
One objection to the King's Buildings site is its perceived remoteness from the central University campus, although its separation from the city's grime and poor air is seen by others as a distinct advantage.
The new building's innovative layout is based on ideas by department head James Walker, whose foresight has been to design a facility with teaching rooms interspersed with numerous research laboratories. It shares many features of industrial buildings, including the north-lit saw-tooth roof and large windows to provide adequate illumination. Walker has also eschewed the use of elaborate building materials – most of the structure is constructed from red brick – preferring to spend the money on internal features. His split design, with the second floor to be built later, is much criticised at the time; the wisdom of this decision will be recognised in later years.
Once the first phase of the building is complete and opened for teaching in 1922, Chemistry will be the only working department on campus; almost seven years will pass before it is joined by any other science facility.
Looking south over an empty, tree-lined West Mains Road, we see that Chemistry has been joined by the recently opened Zoology building at the corner of Mayfield Road. Its construction has been the subject of great debate: many influential voices – including that of James Ashworth – argued against the move to West Mains.
The building has been built with many innovative features, including large laboratory windows, and an extensive museum has been incorporated into the structure. The exterior is lavishly decorated with a series of sculptured panels executed by Phyllis Bone, depicting a range of animals in bold relief.
The new Institute of Animal Genetics facility – later to be occupied by GeoSciences – is almost complete, and outbuildings for sheep, pigs and chickens lie to its north-west, including the long hut ("The Piggery") that will later be a home for the Faculty Office.
Old YMCA huts, which formerly housed wartime American soldiers in St. Andrews Square, are now in temporary use by the Department of Geology and the student union, next to the Chemistry Building. (Click on the link below to see a picture of the huts in their original 1919 location, surrounding the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square.)
The first four of ten tennis courts have been completed; they will last into the 1970s, before being removed to make way for new structures.
The Institute of Animal Genetics building has opened, with its 30-acre farm and extensive number of outbuildings for sheep, goats, pigs and poultry; there are plans to complete the structure with a western extension, converting the 'T' into an 'H'. Work is also well underway on the new Geology and Engineering facilities, on either side of the Natural History building.
As the future Grant Building takes shape, the temporary YMCA hut, home to Geology, has been partially demolished. Once the huts have been entirely removed the site will be occupied by King's Buildings House.
Clearly visible below the Chemistry building, the original West Mains steading now stands unoccupied and will soon be removed, to be later replaced by a large parking area.
Having previously been damaged during student election celebrations, the statue of Sir David Brewster – "Father of Experimental Optics" and inventor of the kaleidoscope – has been relocated from the Old College quadrangle; in the absence of a Physics facility it stands alone, facing the Chemistry building.
The first period of major construction work is coming to an end; with the completion of KB House and the beginning of a new war, the campus will be relatively quiet for the next twenty or so years. At this point, however, King's Buildings' future is by no means certain, and appeals are still being made to return science to the city centre.
This Royal Air Force aerial image taken by Spitfire as part of Ordnance Survey photography shows the work that had been carried out on the campus by the beginning of the war in 1939.
The Animal Genetics Institute (now the Crew Building) was completed in 1930, while the Sanderson Engineering Laboratory and Grant Institute of Geology were opened by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in January of 1932.
The buildings from West Mains Farm have now gone, and the southern section of the farm site has been leased to the golf club, who have begun to extend their course.
The University Union had been lobbying for a permanent campus building since 1929, having spent seven years in shared wooden huts, their common room being described as “leaking and rat-infested”. Begun in 1937, the building (later to be the KB Union) was opened in 1939. As can be seen in later images the building has been arranged on an L-plan, with a lounge and balcony overlooking the tennis courts to the south of the Geology building. Unlike the more classical academic structures it has something of an Art Deco feel, and is relatively luxurious (for the time).
The campus is about to begin over two decades of extensive growth, and few spaces will remain untouched. This is despite several serious post-war proposals to move facilities back to the centre of town, and one particularly interesting plan...
The previous 1946 aerial shot makes for an interesting comparison with this plan, drawn up in the summer of 1949 by the Department of Engineering, for the possible relocation of the entire University out to the West Mains site – using land occupied by the golf course.
There is considerable merit in the idea of wholesale relocation. Funds from the sale of old, cramped city sites could be used for modern, purpose-built facilities, including the medical school and library. There are even prescient suggestions that the central city hospital should be relocated to a nearby site...
The University owns the surrounding land including the golf course, so there is room for substantial new developments, overcoming the overcrowding problems in the city centre. And the site is clean and unspoiled, in sharp contrast to the central area's filth and grime.
But the proposal is eventually considered to be too radical, and the historical traditions of a central University presence prove too strong. A final plan that includes partial reconstruction of the George Square site becomes the only serious option.
The Post-War Development Committee finally recommends the dual development of George Square and the retention of the research facilities at West Mains Farm; this is approved by the University Court in December 1949.
This image stands at the beginning of the era of growth, when most of today's familiar buildings will be built. For now, however, sheep and cattle still graze over the southern end of the campus.
The Sanderson Building’s tower (left) – housing water tanks used for gravity-fed hydraulics experiments – is the highest campus structure; in years to come it will be lost amid a crowd of taller buildings.
South of the Genetics Institute, and facing the newlybuilt roundabout (with its solitary stone monument), are the single-storey structures of the Poultry Research Centre, built for the Agricultural Research Council.
The foresight of James Walker's design for the Chemistry building has been shown with the addition of the second floor, with some redevelopment of the building's internal structure.
Although in its early stages, discussions have already begun for the relocation of the Department of Natural Philosophy, whose facilities in the city centre have become cramped and outdated. Early plans are for a building of modest size...
Traffic is still light in the mid-fifties: there are no traffic-lights at the crossroads, and there are as yet few parking spaces on the campus itself.
The pace has picked up substantially: a post-war increase in government funding – largely replacing the pre-war use of private donations – has meant that several new developments have been made possible.
In the foreground, the Animal Research Organisation HQ (the future Roger Land Building) is under construction, its striking modernist design in sharp contrast to the earlier, more formal stone structures
On the far-right lies the equally modern design of the Edinburgh College of Agriculture, opened in 1959.
The Grant, Ashworth and Joseph Black Buildings all have new extensions, and to the east (top), the complex arrangement of Engineering facilities is taking shape, with the Faraday, Fleeming Jenkin and Hudson Beare Buildings forming one large complex, attached to the Sanderson.
At top-right, site clearance is just beginning for a new facility to house the Department of Botany.
The "green heart" – the unbuilt centre of the campus – remains untouched as new buildings spring up around it, and the campus is still relatively open. Formal parking spaces have, however, made their first appearance...
This period also marks the growth of residential areas in what was formerly the distant outskirts of Edinburgh: the campus will soon no longer feel as though it lies on the periphery.
In the foreground we see the future Darwin Building (Molecular Biology, Forestry and Natural Resources), whose metal skeleton will stand untouched for several months following the mid-year suspension of all government-funded building projects as a result of the mid-sixties' currency crisis.
This will also mark the first moment when residents in surrounding areas begin to take notice of campus developments: the new Darwin will block the view of the observatory for some...
When complete, the Darwin will dominate the campus for several decades, yet the largest University structure devoted to science is not visible in this picture. In the centre of town the Appleton Tower is nearing completion, as part of extensive University developments – for good or ill – in George Square. When it opens in January 1966 the Appleton will house first-year science students, before they move to this campus in their later years.
The first of several major extensions to the Ashworth Building (right) – a five-storey research laboratory facility – is also underway, and ground is already being cleared for what will be the largest building on campus, intended to house the remaining science departments from the centre of town...
As we approach the end of the nineteen-sixties the pace of building is slowing, although major campus structures will still be completed in the years ahead.
The new Ashworth laboratories have been opened, and the Darwin and Daniel Rutherford (Botany) Buildings occupy the south-east part of the campus (top-right).
The first, single-storey phase of what will be the James Clerk Maxwell Building is complete, and is the new home for the rapidly growing Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre, with its new ICL System 4-75 computer, which will be used to develop the ground breaking EMAS operating system.
The Grant Institute extension for Experimental Petrology (centre-left) opened in 1965: its futuristic truncated blast chimneys have been designed to cope with unexpected experimental explosions...
This is the last aerial photograph to show the brick chimney, part of the coal-fired heating system: it will soon (appear to) vanish.
The image clearly shows the roundabout in front of the Poultry Research Centre, with its solitary stone marker. Believed to be an erratic boulder brought to the area by the action of glaciers (and possibly linked with the Agassiz rock by the Braid Burn), the boulder will shortly disappear in a flurry of new plant growth, only to reappear as the centenary comes to an end...
As we enter the seventies, progress continues on the James Clerk Maxwell Building; Computing will soon be joined by Mathematics, Physics and Meteorology, occupying the building while it is under construction.
The Engineering complex continues to evolve, with the appearance of the Kenneth Denbigh and John Muir (Centre for Fire Safety Engineering) Buildings, and the Structures laboratory. The Department of Engineering has almost fully occupied the east of the campus, although there is still space for new developments.
We can also see the striking Hudson Beare lecture theatre (built in 1964) standing alone, its brutalist architecture uncluttered by other buildings or vegetation.
Also visible is the lawn at the south end of the Biophysics (later Weir) Building (top-centre), where members of the Department of Microbiology set up a croquet pitch. This building owes its existence in part to the Windscale nuclear disaster, as the University expanded its Biophysics research in response to the need for more information on the effects of radiation on human beings.
On the right, the chimney for the old, coal-fired heating system now acts only as a support for the distinctive cluster of pipes that form the new, combined oil and gas heating plant outlet, and which will stand as a visual icon for the campus for the next fifty years.
Meanwhile, the new KB Refectory (with catering space for 400 hungry students) is under construction.
As the oil crisis looms (followed by economic uncertainty and a sharp change in the political climate), building work on the campus will almost entirely halt, as the University faces severe fiscal cuts.
In this photograph we see that JCMB construction continues, the KB refectory is open, and work is underway on the Social Facilities Building, which will house a coffee lounge, bookshop, general store and bank.
This image is also the final one in which we will see the tennis courts; they have lasted almost unchanged since the 1920s (in the 1969 photograph people can actually be seen playing tennis on two courts), but will disappear in the next decade, to be replaced by new structures.
To the lower-left we can see the extensive area of plots used by Department of Botany gardeners from the mid- 1960s to grow plants for teaching and research, and in later years by researchers to carry out some of the earliest studies on the influence of increased CO2 levels on tree growth.
From this point on, only the central area of greenery will remain undeveloped as the campus fills up. Meanwhile, the golf course and Blackford Hill park are now the last barrier against urban growth on all sides.
Emerging from the economic strictures of the late seventies and nineteen-eighties, the campus is seen here in washed-out colour, as we move forward eighteen years: no aerial images appear to exist of King's Buildings in the intervening period. [If you know otherwise, please contact us...]
The Poultry Research Centre has closed, as its research facilities moved to the Roslin site, and in the next decade there will be extensive redevelopment on the west of the campus. Meanwhile, the Alrick Building is the most recent addition to the eastern complex of Engineering structures.
For the first time we see the perimeter road, extending south and west to join with West Mains Road. Parking on campus, so different from 1954, has become a major problem, extending out into the surrounding streets. A new multi-storey car-park (bottom centre) has been built to help alleviate the pressure on space.
The green heart still remains as the undeveloped centre of the campus, although trees built on the landfill from the construction of JCMB are beginning to intrude...
This is last photograph in which the old farm buildings (bottom-right) will appear: they will be demolished as the century turns, along with the old three-storey Waddington Building, though its end will be extensively delayed as the structure – long unused by the College's human occupants – has become home to a thriving colony of bats.
Many new buildings can be seen in this recent aerial photograph: Michael Swann, Erskine Williamson, Alexander Graham Bell, William Rankine, CH Waddington, Murchison, Christina Miller (extension), the Murray Library, FloWave, the Scottish Microelectronics Centre, Mary Brück and Arcadia Nursery. We can only list the structures: their history requires more than one display.
In the century since The King’s Buildings campus was founded on purchased farmland, there have been hundreds of building projects, and there is now no space for new developments; in future, to put up new buildings, old facilities will have to be demolished.
And yet... comparing the views in these few gallery images – and in particular this early autumn photograph – it's clear that our more crowded campus is also host to a huge diversity of trees, shrubs and other plants (124 tree species in total, including 23 of the 33 native British trees), which have taken considerable time and effort to develop and maintain.
Postscript: This is the last photograph taken before the Nucleus development began, and as the New Biology Project got underway, refurbishing the Darwin and building new structures. Engineering were also preparing for a significant new build on the west of the campus.
The path ahead seemed clear, as 2020 began...
|1914 OS map||This partial print has been permitted for non-commercial, educational use from the Ordnance Survey 25-inch edition, 1914. Permission of the National Library of Scotland. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html|
|1920, 2019||The University of Edinburgh is the rights holder of these prints; permission is required for their re-use.|
|1921, 1946, 1963, 1965, 1969, 1971, 1974, 1992||
These images were found stored in University premises, and despite extensive searches in collections, archives, within the University and elsewhere we have been unable to determine their origin. Accordingly, we have obtained Orphan Works Licences from the UK Intellectual Property Office, covering non-commercial use for our exhibition. If you have any information on the provenance of these images we would like to hear from you: contact Peter Reid from the College of Science and Engineering:
This print is used with permission by the Canmore Collection (item 1315439), and can be purchased for download at the following link:
|1931||Edinburgh City Archives are the rights holder for this image (ref. Acc477, img#42), and have given permission for non-commercial use in our exhibition.|
This print is used with permission by the Canmore Collection (item 1438269), and can be purchased for download at the following link: