Albert Sloman library building at the University of Essex

"The project of education-via-marketisation has had ugly results"

Opinion: the Brutalist architecture of 1960s British university campuses may not have been popular among students at the time, but recent styles of education architecture suggest a far more cynical approach, says Owen Hatherley.

Although for some the architecture of higher education in the UK will always be defined by the (usually half-faked) Gothic and baroque courtyards of Oxford and Cambridge, the last hundred years have born witness to two major building projects – both creating a completely new architectural typology.

Both emerged at the hands of Labour governments. The first was in the 1960s – the creation of new "plate glass universities", unbeholden to the arcane traditions and elite codes of Oxbridge or the dense urban sites and industrial links of the redbrick universities in the north and Midlands. These New Universities were an odd traditionalist-futurist project, tellingly built on the outskirts of historic cities, to unified, singular designs by one firm of architects, like tiny New Towns. They form a distinct group – the University of York (the only one named after its host city, designed in Brutalist fashion by Andrew Derbyshire of RMJM), Warwick (International Style, in Coventry, designed by Yorke Rosenberg and Mardall), Sussex (Maisons Jaoul-style, Brighton, Basil Spence), Kent (dour Modernism, Canterbury, William Holford), East Anglia (heroic Brutalism, Norwich, Denys Lasdun) and Essex (Brutalism again, Colchester, Architects Co-Partnership).

Less obviously planned but with much larger-scale results was the expansion of the universities under the Tony Blair governments of the late 1990s/early 2000s – a massive new influx of often working-class students, whose new opportunities were a quid pro quo with crippling debt and increasingly high tuition fees. Rather than all-new campuses, the result here was merged mega-universities, favouring signature buildings to impress parents (Daniel Libeskind's basically useless students union for London Met is typical here) and a contracting-out of most of the required functional architecture to ruthless specialised student flatbuilders like Unite.

The results of this are still playing themselves out – a wave of student occupations, including in the old New University of Warwick, in favour of free education were violently suppressed earlier this month, with tear gas and batons. Today, the few favoured universities are more successful than ever, while those that took up the slack of expansion are struggling. The project of education-via-marketisation has had ugly results. Do the ideas of the "plate-glass universities" hold up by contrast?

These are the questions that were implicitly asked by Something Fierce, an excellent exhibition at – and about – the 50th anniversary of the University of Essex. Imaginatively curated by Essex's Jessica Kenny and Jules Lubbock, the latter an occasional speechwriter to inveterate opponent of modern architecture Prince Charles, it took up two floors of The Hexagon, a perhaps tellingly disused community building at the heart of the campus. The lower floor of this open, double-height space was devoted to the architectural conception of the university, the upper gallery to how it was used, appropriated and radicalised by generations of students. Kenneth Capon, the head designer on the scheme at the Architects Co-Partnership, imagined the university as that typical architect's ideal, the Italian hill-town, placed on a hill overlooking the Roman town of Colchester. What sort of a town was it?

The curators put a copy on display of the Death and Life of American Cities along with Reyner Banham's The New Brutalism, arguing that unlike the low-rise, low-density, suburban post-war New Towns, the New Universities were like medieval towns, dense with skylines, streets and architectural drama. This can be seen in York's lakeside social condensers, Sussex's Corbusian-Roman archways, East Anglia's ziggurat halls of residence, and systems of pedestrian-only walkways just about everywhere.

Essex's remarkable skyline of dark brown brick tower block halls of residence (named after Keynes, Tawney, William Morris) was one of the most instantly memorable of these, placed in two clusters around the departments – which were not, initially, allowed to separate into distinct colleges, an attempt at creating an environment free of disciplinary boundaries – something that extended to the life of students themselves. "Almost no rules" was the approving comment of one of the students quoted in the exhibition.

Essex would become one of the most militant of universities in the wave of agitation and occupation that followed May 1968's student uprising in Paris. The collection of broadsides, pamphlets, posters and badges upstairs, stretching up to the present, was as exhilarating and messy as the politics described, which veers from hippy Utopianism, strident Communism (plenty of Soviet imagery) to Trotskyism and Anarchism, and is often hilariously splenetic – one handbill warned students against anyone with a camera, as "they might be GODARD".

The relationship between the architecture and the radical students was tense; a report later specifically blamed it for the "disturbances". One poster features the architect Kenneth Capon, looming above the halls of residence he designed, with the words: "This is my beloved babel, in which I am well pleased".

Like most baby boomers, insurgent students disliked Modern architecture's dark colours, austere shapes and allegedly 'totalitarian' technical imagery. However, as Alan Powers has written, "no architecture could have been better devised for revolution" than that of the New Universities – dense, social, interconnected, and also, self-contained. Perhaps, the students' response to the architecture reflects those of boomers to the welfare state in general – availing themselves as much as possible of the (now-dismantled, now-inconceivable) freedoms and opportunities it provided, while revolting against its rationality and order.

Their hatred of Brutalism eventually resulted in the nostalgic, nondescript, suburban, red-brick extensions round the original towers. More charitably, they wanted to extend that freedom and equality to something more radical than social democratic quadrangles, and they had an eye for the often dubious corporate sources of the University's funding. The first protest in Essex in 1968 was against a visiting lecturer from the Porton Down research laboratory – the developers, they pointed out, of tear gas.

By coincidence, a few weeks after visiting Something Fierce, I was in Southend, the coastal town into which the franchised University of Essex brand has extended. The student housing there by Stephen Marshall Architects is truly "brutal", far more than any Brutalism – profit-driven trespa tat, ineptly covered by a screamingly bright colour palette.

In its normal urbanism and visual jollity, this is the baby boomers' legacy to the architecture of education, and it's this that today's generation of students are pledged to destroy. For the radicals at places like Sussex, the social spaces of an earlier era can be built on far more than the developers' towers of today. Mike Davis wrote in the essay Who Will Build the Ark that the open, communal planning of University campuses often contains within it flashes of a potential Socialist city. If so, today they're another example of Socialism for the rich. Still, we can be quite sure there won't be any commemorative exhibition in the University of Essex's Southend campus in fifty years.

Owen Hatherley is a critic and author, focussing on architecture, politics and culture. His books include Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through urban Britain (2012).