The Attenborough Building is located on the campus of the University of Leicester. The building is home to the university’s College of Arts, Humanities and Law and also the College of Social Science.
The building is named after Frederick Attenborough, the father of the famous David and Richard. From 1932-1951 Frederick was the principal of University College Leicester (the name of the University of Leicester before it was awarded its royal charter in 1957). It was opened by his son John in 1970 on the same day that Frederick’s two other sons, Richard and David, received honorary degrees from the university.
The Attenborough Building stands on the site of the former hostel which housed the nurses who worked in the nearby asylum. The building was designed by Sir Philip Dowson of Arup Associates with Ove Arup as consulting engineers and completed by John Laing Construction Ltd. Originally, there were meant to be two other towers identical to the Attenborough tower built for the university, however, these plans were later revised so that only one tower was ever constructed.
In the beginning the plans for the building raised some eyebrows and even some vertigo. In one article about the new building in the University of Leicester’s student newspaper Ripple a sociology lecturer was quoted as saying that he was “glad his department was to be kept low down since he was terrified of heights and was certain that the lift would fail after a week!” Despite the trepidation of this lecturer both the buildings, as well as its famous lift, have now been serving the university for over 40 years.
The tower element of the building is affectionately known by students as ‘the cheese grater’. The tower bears a particularly striking resemblance to the said kitchen implement thanks to its outward slanting windows. In 2008 the Attenborough tower underwent major work when all of its windows were replaced.
The tower is said to be eighteen stories high, however this does not include floors one and two, the so-called ‘plant floors’, which contain boilers. If we include these, the tower is in fact twenty storeys, 48m, tall. The eighteen floors which are occupied contain 270 offices and tutorial rooms alongside wonderful views of both the city and Clarendon Park from the higher floors. The seminar block, which is linked to the tower, contains further seminar rooms as well as three underground lecture theatres.
The building received a Civic Trust Commendation in 1972, as part of the Civic Trust Awards for that year. These Awards recognise achievements in architecture, design, planning, landscape and public art, for both their quality and contribution to the local community.
Located within the tower of the Attenborough Building is the famous Paternoster lift. When it is in operation during the day the Paternoster does not stop, therefore those wishing to use the lift must literally hop on and hop off as the carriages pass their floor. However, the lift doesn’t move that quickly so passengers have plenty of time to get on and off! The lift is composed of a string of carriages, one directly above the other; this means that there is no real gap between the lifts as the base of one is connected to the ceiling of the next. This makes it an ideal lift for use in a busy university where a normal, single carriage lift would not serve the volume of staff and students. On a daily basis the Paternoster saves many students and staff both the time and considerable energy required to climb the stairs.
Paternoster lifts were first built in 1884 by the engineering firm of J & E Hall Ltd of Dartford and were then called ‘the Cyclic Elevator’. The name Paternoster was not, as some believe, acquired by the lift because it was the prayer muttered by most before jumping fearfully into a passing carriage. Instead, the name was given to the lift due to the fact that it travels in a loop and is therefore similar to rosary (or other prayer) beads which are used as aids when reciting prayers, thus also reflecting the generally slow paced nature of the lift.
Alongside Sheffield University’s Arts Tower, the Attenborough Tower is one of the few buildings in the UK that still houses a fully operational Paternoster lift. Previously De Montfort University also possessed a Paternoster which was located in the Fletcher Tower but following a major refurbishment of the building, completed in 2006, the Paternoster was removed.The university and its students retain something of a special pride in the ‘cheese grater’ and its rare lift and at the beginning of every academic year security guards are to be found at the entrance to the lift on the second floor to ensure that newcomers have no difficulties in perfecting their timing.