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Fitzwilliam College Library and IT Centre, Cambridge, by Edward Cullinan Architects

[STUDY + PLANS + IMAGES + DATA] Edward Cullinan Architects’ library and IT centre is an unpretentious mediator between the diverse architectures of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Simon Feneley

The three-storey elevations of the residential blocks enclosing Fellows’ Court and Tree Court at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam College have tall windows of various widths.

The windows don’t stack up, and there is no particular need for them to do so because the brickwork panels sit on deep, horizontal bands of concrete. In recent years, countless architects have used this compositional device to animate their facades and some may have congratulated themselves on having laid an egg. But architect Denys Lasdun built these blocks in 1963.

Lasdun’s office produced some accomplished graduates, including Jan Kaplický, Peter Ahrends, Australian architect Sean Godsell, and Edward Cullinan, who worked on Lasdun’s Fitzwilliam College masterplan. Now, Edward Cullinan Architects has completed a new library and IT centre at the college, which opened its doors in January.

Cullinan remained a close friend of his former employer until Lasdun’s death in 2001. It’s interesting to look for connections between the work of the two architects, particularly because Cullinan belongs to a younger generation and tends to work in a different idiom, so the connections lie beneath the surface of the architecture. Like Lasdun’s, Cullinan’s work has a very human dimension, revealing a deep interest in people. They also share a tectonic rigour.

Lasdun once compared this type of urban design exercise to darning a sock

Cullinan’s new library occupies a site on the east side of Fitzwilliam College, between the east range of Lasdun’s Tree Court and The Grove – a Grade II-listed, two-storey brick villa completed in 1813, which was inhabited by its architect, William Custance, and then by Charles Darwin’s widow long before the college moved to this site in 1966. Twenty metres to the east is a three-storey residential block in the grounds of New Hall, and Cullinan had to be mindful of its occupants’ privacy. Lasdun once compared this type of urban design exercise to darning a sock.

Cullinan’s library continues Lasdun’s range and a similar dark brick clads the east facade, the apse at the south end and the turret, known as the ‘reader tower’. Likewise, to the south of this tower, the lower floors of the west facade are clad in timber, intended to complement the brickwork of The Grove. The setting-out line of this facade is tilted on plan, so it avoids encroaching on the north-east corner of The Grove. On the west side of the library, the first-floor clerestory and the second storey are set back to allow more light to reach The Grove and to emphasise the relationship between the level of its parapet and the zinc copings at the top of the serrated oak facade.

A monopitch roof and canopy sail over the glazing on the upper floors. The design is convincing. With no cover caps, this glazing reads as a negative element and, apart from some unfortunate rainwater pipes, there are no visual connections between the roof and the timber-clad zone below. The fascia at first-floor level is set at the same height as the parapet of Tree Court.

So the materials of the library’s west facade splice together Lasdun’s range and The Grove, with a joint line to the south of the tower and a degree of continuity in the levels. But the change in level where the reader tower and the east facade of the library abut Lasdun’s range is emphatic. Its circular geometry and the scale and upward-spiralling configuration of its windows also contrast with its neighbour.

To borrow an adjective from critic Colin Rowe, one could hardly describe this as an ‘ingratiating’ gesture. Cullinan has used the tower as a cylindrical node to connect and reconcile different elements and geometries. One of the best examples of this device is All Souls Church at Langham Place in London, which its architect, John Nash, used as a pivot when he designed London’s Regent Street. However, as the Fitzwilliam College site layout demonstrates, the reader tower does not mark a change of building axes. Instead it acts as the point around which the west facade rotates, like the ball-and-socket joint where a bird’s wing meets its abdomen.

The library’s entrance is situated at this point. A small reception area provides access to a special collections room and a circular study area. To the right is one of the main reading areas, and straight ahead are a staircase and a lift serving the basement and upper floors. Security is unobtrusive. There are currently no cumbersome book-security systems at the entrance and toilets are situated inside the library. Most windows are fixed lights and the building has a displacement ventilation system.

Raised floors act as plenums, with circular floor diffusers, and air is extracted through grilles in the north wall of the main reading areas, where a riser duct connects to a heat exchanger in the basement. Reading desks have connections to data and power networks for laptops, and there are dedicated air-conditioned IT rooms in the basement. Under-floor plenums are not required in these areas and the basement has no access floors; dado trunking has been specified instead.

This is first and foremost a working university library, designed by a practice with long-standing expertise in this area. The floorplates of the reading areas are simply stacked up and the thermal mass of the in-situ concrete structure, with painted soffits in the reading areas, is appropriate for a 24-hour library. Insolation and glare are regulated by internal roller blinds, solar-control glass and overhanging roofs.

Video: Time-lapse of the building’s construction

The building’s only practical fault is its squeaky raised floor, but this will presumably be resolved on completion. The architect drew up the library to a high level of detail prior to novation, and it was largely built as drawn. It has attractive reading areas, with purpose-designed desks and carefully regulated natural light. Large and probably quite expensive fire-rated glass panels in doors and screens contribute to this effect. However, with two exceptions, there is little spatial interest in this building.

The first exception is the double-height reading space on the first floor of the half-oval tower on the south side. This looks like, and was in fact originally intended to be, a stair tower. After planning permission was granted, Cullinan realised that by making the building slightly shorter it could avoid the need for a second escape stair, so this area was absorbed into the library and two lofty slit windows were added.

The other interesting space is the reader tower. Here, students can perch at desks arranged in an ascending spiral configuration, in a daylit space with stunning views. This is undoubtedly a contrived arrangement, and could even be seen as belonging to the same architectural species as the Panopticon – a geometrical layout for a prison with a central observation point and radial cells, designed by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Alternatively, it could be seen as a response to the reader’s need to find a congenial spot in which to study and a reminder that education should be an enjoyable experience. The potential reverberation problems inherent in the tower’s circular geometry have been addressed, as elsewhere, by acoustically absorbent lining. It would be interesting to know how popular these reading places are and how easy it is for readers to concentrate. Presumably they will chat on the escape staircase, rather than here.

The reader tower is very close to the heart of Cullinan’s work and, I think, to what Paul Finch described as its ‘touchy-feely’ quality in a practice monograph. Perhaps this is why the tower stands out as something of a curiosity in this project.

The detailed design and specification seeks to match and rhyme with the library’s two very different neighbours. Cullinan specified Ibstock’s Crowborough multicoloured stock brick cladding, the closest available match to Lasdun’s range, and 140mm-wide vertical European oak boarding, which will weather to a grey finish with a similar tone and hue to The Grove. The brickwork pointing has a pale colour that defiantly contrasts with the dark bricks, just like Lasdun’s facades.

The vertical fins that form the west facade are stepped to allow light to enter the reading spaces of the library at an oblique angle, thus avoiding glare, and these steps correspond to the 1,650mm spacing of the stacks in the library, the light fittings and the perimeter reading desks. Roofs have Rheinzink standing seam cladding, fascias and bargeboards and European oak soffits. Cullinan also designed the landscape, which will integrate with the intimate gardens surrounding The Grove as the planting becomes established. Inside the library, Cullinan has, as requested by the college, specified American white oak joinery, similar to the internal finishes of Fitzwilliam College’s chapel, which was completed to MJP Architects’ design in 1991.

Although it is sometimes said that the cooperative structure of Cullinan’s office is not conducive to homogeneous design, the Fitzwilliam College library is, on the whole, a consistent work of architecture, with functional and tectonic rigour. However, it lacks (although probably does not aspire to) the aesthetic control and contemporary features of some of its neighbours, notably Allies and Morrison’s 2003 Gatehouse Court. Ultimately, Cullinan, is very much his own man, with his own humanist agenda.

One of Lasdun’s favourite epithets was ‘honourable’. He used this word to refer to designs that were, if nothing else, thoughtful, unpretentious and faithful to their authors’ principles. I believe he would describe Cullinan’s library as an honourable building.

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