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Exploring the AJ Buildings Library: Coffey on Robinson College

Phil Coffey, founder of Coffey Architects, tells us about Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s ‘richest work’: Robinson College at the University of Cambridge

The AJ Buildings Library (TheAJBL.co.uk) is a major digital research resource containing more than 50,000 images and drawings of the UK’s best buildings. It is included as part of your Architects’ Journal subscription. In this new monthly feature we ask a prominent architect to browse the AJ Buildings Library and tell us about a building in it that has inspired or significantly informed the work they do.

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Architectural inspiration can come from many places and at different times. It can come in a singular moment or over many years, through education, a conversation, a detail and - particularly for me - a plan or section.

Robinson College is the last major work of Gillespie Kidd & Coia (GKC) and also the last fully-formed new build Oxbridge college. It is possibly the richest work of Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan. Like many others who were students at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, I had the honour of being taught by MacMillan, but more often by Metzstein, and I was mesmerised by their love for urban buildings. At a masterplan level, the GKC proposals were considerably different to the other competition entries (the models of all the schemes can still be seen in the library today).

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It was the only urban response creating density and activity that would at once create a critical mass for the community of the College and also allow for the gardens behind to be maintained for the use of the students and staff. It was a critical and correct decision: the gardens are now maintained and well-used, with a new outdoor theatre added for celebration.

The ‘megastructure’ itself is a lesson in plan and section. Many years ago I presented my diploma project for a Music Hall in Glasgow to Metzstein, a building all about the section. Metzstein was sceptical about my 1:500 model. ‘Models can lie,’ he said, and proceeded to sketch the section of the Sydney Bay Opera House in minute detail to describe how accuracy is important for buildings. Metzstein said to me: ‘You do not draw drawings, you discover them’. Robinson College reminds me of this moment, the complex series of sections related to an organising plan.

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We organise in plan and live in section and the building is a story of discovery. The experience of Robinson College begins with the ramp to the portico: a change in level towards the ‘tower’ that marks the entrance. Through the portico the college square allows congregation. From here, the promenade along the street provides varied thresholds, both formal and experiential, that to me are joyful. These simple moves produce varied experiences for the building’s different users.

To list a few of these relationships: along the street, the grand hall is entered at the upper level and looks down over activities below; the café/bar is accessed over two levels and enjoys the street and gardens behind; bridges fly across the street to connect accommodation above, suggesting student and fellow hierarchy, and are accessed from the stepped section for circulation to each of the student clusters. Each cluster of student rooms also enjoys a staircase (of which there are many) leading directly to the college gardens below.

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The chapel’s outer wall peels away from the inner structure and is animated with a John Piper stained glass window. Inside, the glazed sun is intriguingly hidden from view from the interior with light pouring in behind an obstructing column. To the east side of the chapel, a ‘hen run’ allows for the access to the choir and organ ‘outside’ of the chapel enclosure.

The library is entered at the crank in the plan, allowing a large entrance lobby. The library’s main reading rooms are then accommodated in the linear part of the plan, with another stepped section allowing circulation and light to enjoy the same space, with books protected from ultraviolet light. Each of these crafted situations shows how there is a wealth of three-dimensional moments that are particular to function and context. If only more buildings could say the same.

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The scheme is an architecture that explores relationships between people and place. The plan has a looseness that allows exploration in many varied sections that respond to the wider context and its own internal context. It is what I love about architecture: that constant conversation between the outside and the inside, controlling movement and light through structure and form.

GKC’s inspirations for the college would have included, but were not limited to, older Oxbridge colleges, the urbanity of Glasgow, Le Corbusier at La Tourette, the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and, in particular, his library, which so tragically has recently been lost. This is a lineage that I think can inspire us all to create better buildings and places that improve the lives of the people who use them.

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On a recent visit to Robinson College library I opened a book on GKC. Inside were recent notes from both MacMillan and Metzstein to the college written in 2010, 30 years after completion. Metzstein’s note reads: ‘With thanks for a great opportunity to participate in a great architectural and personal adventure’ - a final inspiration in its humility and kindness. Phil Coffey

How to use the AJ Buildings Library

1. Login to the AJ Buildings Library using your AJ online subscription details at TheAJBL.co.uk

2. Search the library by entering the name of a building, typology or material you are researching

3. Filter your results by completion date, cost, m² or location

4. Click on the search results to view project data, high resolution photographs, drawings and working details of each project

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