The main campus of the university occupies a site some 3 miles (4.8 km) south-west of Birmingham city centre, in Edgbaston. It is arranged around Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower (affectionately known as ‘Old Joe’ or ‘Big Joe’), a grand campanile which commemorates the university’s first chancellor, Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain may be considered the founder of Birmingham University, and was largely responsible for the university gaining its Royal Charter in 1900 and for the development of the Edgbaston campus. The university’s Great Hall is located in the domed Aston Webb Building, which is named after one of the architects – the other was Ingress Bell. The initial 25-acre (100,000 m2) site was given to the university in 1900 by Lord Calthorpe. The grand buildings were an outcome of the £50,000 given by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to establish a “first class modern scientific college” on the model of Cornell University in the United States. Funding was also provided by Sir Charles Holcroft.
The original domed buildings, built in Accrington red brick, semicircle to form Chancellor’s Court. This sits on a 30 feet (9.1 m) drop, so the architects placed their buildings on two tiers with a 16 feet (4.9 m) drop between them. The clock tower stands in the centre of the Court. The campanile itself draws its inspiration from the Torre del Mangia, a medieval clock tower that forms part of the Town Hall in Siena, Italy. When it was built, it was described as ‘the intellectual beacon of the Midlands’ by the Birmingham Post. The clock tower was Birmingham’s tallest building from the date of its construction in 1908 until 1969
The original buildings of the University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, on Chancellor’s Court. Aston Webb & Ingress Bell. 1909. Accrington red brick with saucer domes, with some features reminiscent of Francis Bentley’s Byzantine Westminster Cathedral of 1895-1903; it differs in style from Oxbridge colleges just as that cathedral was intended to differ from the Gothic Westminster Abbey. The buildings also owe something to the pavilion plan of recent hospitals like Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Leeds General Infirmary, where wards diverge from a central front — though, surprisingly, the Great Hall, seen on the left here, was not originally intended to be in this position. The result is a very distinctive — indeed stunning — ensemble. Stone dressings, especially on the entrance pavilion to the Great Hall, relieve the red brick. So do the main decorative elements — a row of nine statues by Henry Alfred Pegram over the main doorways, heraldic carving in the spandrels of the round-arched window, and a ceramic frieze by Robert Anning Bell higher up on the façade. Within their allotted spaces, these features complement rather than distract from the bold outlines of the buildings — a “geometry of squares and circles, cubes and hemispheres, perhaps inspired by (W. R.) Lethaby’s Architecture. Mysticism and Myth (1892).
The University of Birmingham, which received its Royal Charter in 1900, is the first of the group of modern Universities founded in England during the past eight years, and is the immediate successor of the Mason University College. This College, which owed its inception and foundation to the late Sir Josiah Mason, was opened in the year 1880, and afforded means for the scientific and literary training of the youth of the Midlands for a period of twenty years. The College had at first only four Professors, having charge respectively of the teaching in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, but other departments in Science and Literature were added at a very early date, and in 1892 the work of the College became still further extended by the incorporation of the Medical Faculty of Queen’s College. . . . Soon after the Charter of a University had been granted, it was felt that the accommodation of the Mason College was too restricted, and it was accordingly decided to erect new buildings, in which, first of all, the departments of Applied and Pure Science, but ultimately all the teaching departments, should be housed. This decision was assisted by the gift of Lord Calthorpe to the University of a site of 25 acres at Bournbrook, distant about three miles from the centre of Birmingham. In 1907 Lord Calthorpe gave an additional 19 acres, whiich is now being laid out for College games. The architects of the new buildings are Sir Aston Webb and Mr. Ingress Bell, and the accompanying plan [left] shows the scheme for the whole of the buildings to be erected on the site, and also for the laying out of the grounds.
“The Journal of the Institute of Metals, Vol I”. 1909, pp. 16-7
The main portion of the [Metallurgical] department is all situated on one floor, one of the large blocks being allocated to Metallurgy and Mining. The lower half of this block is devoted to Mining, and the upper half to Metallurgy. The Metallurgical department is approached by a central corridor, as shown [below] and in the sketch plan, and this corridor, which is lighted from above, gives access to all the rooms and laboratories, and also to the teaching museum.
“The Journal of the Institute of Metals, Vol I”. 1909, pp. 19