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Building Study: Robinson College by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia

Read Roderick Ham’s appraisal of Robinson College by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, which was first published in the AJ on the 5th August 1981

Early in 1974 it was announced that a new Cambridge college was to be built with funding from millionaire David Robinson. In the first stages of choosing an architect, 10 practices, representing an extremely wide cross-section of the profession, were invited to submit ideas. The one foreign architect, the Finnish designer Reima Pietila, asked not to be included, and from the remaining submissions-ranging from the Farrell Grimshaw Partnership to R. Seifert and Partners-four practices were subsequently short-listed for the second stage.

The four-Feilden & Mawson, Eric Lyons Cadbury-Brown Metcalfe and Cunningham, MacCormac & Jamieson and the Glasgow-based office of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia-prepared detailed feasibility studies. The trustees of the college were advised throughout by technical and professional members of the university. The schemes were assessed by 8 of the 10 trustees, and in November 1974 it was announced that the proposals of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia were to form the basis for the project.

The five hectare site for Robinson College is to the west of the city of Cambridge near the Backs and outside the Grange Road Conservation Area. Defined by Adams Road to the north, Grange Road on the east and by Herschel Road and Sylvester Road on the south and west respectively, it was entirely dedicated to residential use. There were several large, mostly Edwardian, houses and a number of fine mature trees around the perimeter of the site. In the gardens at the centre were more trees and alarge house called ‘Thorneycreek’. Although the original competition brief had asked for a plan for a educational college with places for up to 600 students, restrictions in the availability of the site meant the first stage had to be designed to accommodate only 350. With long leases on several of the houses it now seems unlikely that the further stages will follow for some time.

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Faced with the problems of devising a plan to provide places for up 600 it is perhaps not surprising that the designers concerned themselves to a large extent with the ‘housing’ element of the problem. The schemes submitted by the three runners-up demonstrate how, with the use of three- and four-storey development, a range of dispersed low rise buildings could satisfy this aspect of the brief. As with the winning scheme, at least one of the other proposals recommended that the majority of the existing houses be replaced, while Feilden &Mawson planned to retain most of the houses, and MacCormac andJamieson suggested preserving those on Adams Road.

The attitudes to landscape and the site shown in the four final schemes varied: in contrast to the concentrated development proposed by the winning scheme, all three runners up planned buildings spread over wide areas of the site and forming courtyards. However, those courtyards ranged from the relatively small spaces enclosed by linked cruciform pavilions in the MacCormac and Jamieson scheme, to the more informal courts and corridors outlined in the other two submissions. With this spread of building came the provisions of local car parking dispersed around the site.

Both the strategic planning and the building form of the winning scheme exhibit a very different approach, and the consequent impact of the building on the site is in strong contrast to the almost suburban patterns of the other schemes. A new college, however, does not only consist of housing and open space: it is a community of scholars which is viewed in the historic context of the other colleges in the university and of the city as a whole. The built scheme recognises, and attempts to respond to, the symbolic aspects of ‘college’.

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Construction of the new Robinson College started in 1977. A year later Yorke Rosenberg Marshall was appointed as executive architect for the project to work with the competition-winning architects-a co-operation which seems to have been successful. The first section of the college was occupied in July 1980 and the completed project was formally opened by Her Majesty the Queen in the spring of this year.

A rare event

‘This new foundation offers a possibility to redefine the collegiate form on a site of such mature landscaped beauty that recognition of the virtues of the synthesis of buildings and gardens would be immediately possible.’The foundation of a new college in Cambridge is a rare event and the commission to design the buildings was recognised by architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia in their preliminary report in 1974 as a challenging and significant one. Faced with the problems of designing a large college with all of its attendant parts on a leafy site on the suburban fringe of the city, they opted for a very different approach from that of the others in the competition. The proposals of the other three finalists spread development over the site in a number of three- and four storey buildings, but this scheme concentrated the built space at the perimeter. This enabled the fine trees at the outer edge of the site, and the garden at the centre, to be retained: but it also resulted in a denser concentration of people.

Although Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s original proposal was for this ribbon of building to extend around three sides of the site, the present college constitutes about two-thirds of that plan. Expansion would involve the demolition of a number of existing houses and currently seems unlikely.

Robinson College is a large and complex building. In response to the economic facts of life it has been organised so that it can be used not just as a co-educational college but also for conferences. Consequently it provides on-site parking for 70 cars, and the majority of the 284 study- bedrooms have individual bathrooms. Other facilities include a fully equipped 270 seat theatre and a generous refectory hall, as well as a chapel, library, common rooms, faculty  accommodation and teaching spaces.

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The college consists of a ground floor podium which houses service rooms and parking with discreet _gated vehicular entrances. In addition there are some public spaces at this level.The roof of this podium becomes a new ground level on whtch the remaining accomodation is placed. The majority of the undergraduate residential space is planned within a four-storey U-shaped block on the garden side of the site, with an outer crust of ancillary accommodation forming a second lower U-shaped block to the street frontages. These two buildings face one another across a new pedestrian street, construction of Queens’ College in 1448 this form was introduced into Cambridge: the components of the college were fitted into a perimeter wall of building which enclosed a focal landscaped court at its centre. Although the sizes and designs of courts varied, the important elements of the college were usually identifiable within it and, as colleges grew, hierarchies of courts developed. Externally, some buildings have a fortress like appearance, emphasised by small windows, crenellated walls and gatehouses, sometimes marked by heraldically decorated towers as at St John’s.

Superficially, Robinson College takes on this same fortified appearance. However, in redefining the collegiate form on this suburban site, the focus of this college is not the enclosed greened court but rather the newly made pedestrian street between the buildings. Perhaps this is meant to evoke the feeling of the cloister-or is it the city itself? Certainly it is a space which is distinctly separate from the garden and, finished off as it is in brick frorri top to bottom, has a hard urban feeling.

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The main entrance into this new pedestrian street is at the junction of Grange Road and Herschel Road. Externally a ramp sweeps up on the diagonal to the entrance gate and porter’s lodge. Once inside, however, the street offers few clues as to the orgamsation of the college. Confronted with an unarticulated wall, and routes off both to left and right this space inherits the problems of entering on the awkward corner and, unlike the traditional model, does not reveal an understandable whole. Although this street is referred to as a series of courts, it is not, because of its plan form and linear qua1ity, the same readily comprehensible space and ordering device as the traditional college court.

The second entrance, at the northern end of Grange Road, is a public pathway which follows Bin Brook through the building, under the pedestrian street and into the garden beyond. Both the stream and the pathway are prominent features m the context of the city but have hardly been acknowledged in the design of the college.

The intersection, under the low soffit of High Court, is marked on the street by a couple of phone booths and a collection of service rooms before ramping down into the garden beyond. In the city, incidents or intersections such as this are often recognized as unique places-not so at Robinson .

As in their design at Wadham College in Oxford, where the library was signalled by a ‘great window’, so here the architects have emphasised both the chapel and the library within the street at Robinson College. However, numerous other important entrances on the street have been suppressed. For example, the doorways into the library, theatre, hall, bar and the fine music room at the northern end of the development, have been suppressed to the point where they are hard to read and difficult to find.

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Although they may not warrant the importance of the great chapel doorway or the library window, these are surely significant elements within the complex which deserve attention? In this context it is particularly interesting to look at Kresge College on the University of California campus at Santa Cruz. A newly created residential college, designed by Charles Moore and William Turnbull of ML TW, and completed in the early ’70s, it accommodates a student population almost as large as at Robinson College. It is organised around a similar plan with a system of pedestrian streets and courts.  However, each of these external spaces is focused around the college’s communal facilities. Here the entrances, library, laundromat and post office have been designed as focal points along streets lined with student housing.

The Cambridge counterpart has a building on one side of this college street which is noticeably different in style from that on the other side. The outer building, next to the main road frontages, houses the administrative offices, common rooms, and the chapel along Grange Road, with faculty housing and the library fronting Herschel Road. This is essentially a two-storey building which is organised rather informally and breaks back to give random views out from the street to the surrounding buildings. The buildings on the garden side are taller and more formal in their massing.

Four floors of residential accommodation sit over the public spaces which are planned at street level. The study bedrooms themselves are grouped around open staircases and a stepped section provides external gallery access and alternative escape routes, thereby dispensing with the need for internal corridors.

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Although the orientation varies considerably, the pattern of fenestration for the student rooms is consistent around the block. It consists of large floor-to-ceiling clear glazed panels which have been carefully designed to be used either as a bottom hung, inward opening hopper window or as a side hung door. This full-height glazing to study bedrooms permits clear views into rooms from the external galleries. In several cases additional blinds and curtains have already been provided to give added privacy.

Some students complain that the movement of people along the galleries disturbs their concentration when working. It is also possible to look from student living rooms and access galleries into faculty and graduate fellows’ housing in a few places on Herschel Road. However, perhaps the most surprising effect of this housing block is that it is so designed that it separates the college street from the garden beyond, and in doing so seems to deny many of those ‘virtues of the synthesis of buildings and gardens’ which the designers identified so positively in their own account.

The residential block presents a tall austere brick screen to the garden. On the top floor rooms are planned within a tile hung storey with a monopitch roof. The heavy detailing of tiles and ridges, especially at that point where the building meets the sky makes this block appear ungainly and loom even larger from the garden itself.

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The building defines a strong edge between college and landscape. Large areas of the building at ground level are blank brickwork and only the cafeteria has been planned with doors onto the garden, 43. Surprisingly, at this point of potential maximum connection, the building has been made particularly impenetrable. To achieve a synthesis between buildings and gardens also requires high levels of understanding and co-operation between architect, client and landscape architect.

From the visible evidence it seems unlikely that these needs were met at Robinson College. Both the design of planting within the street and of the garden itself has been developed in a heavy-handed fashion. The choice of paving materials and detailing in the garden, and the addition of an oversized and poorly designed footbridge seem quite inappropriate. This footbridge in no way relates to the garden in which it is sited nor to the buildings which surround it, and terminates abruptly against the blank wall of Similarly, the efforts of the architects to retain the fine screen of mature trees which existed along the Grange Road frontages of the site have been thwarted. On the day of one of my visits to the college I arrived to find all of those trees felled by the roadside. Even with replanting, such action is not only devastating in terms of its inpact on the way buildings are perceived but also an unpardonable act of civic vandalism. It is in sharp contrast to a policy of gradual replacement which would have been a far happier alternative.

The internal spaces of Robinson College vary considerably from the efficiently designed study bedrooms and sets, to the grand hall and college library. Generally the detailing is meticulous and the choice of materials restrained and well considered.

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However, there are two significant shortcomings of the interiors; namely, the failure to completely integrate the services, and the final fitting out of the spaces. A considerable portion of the furnishing was taken out of the architects hands with the impression that a number of the completed spaces, including the bar and cafeteria, only faintly resemble the original design intentions.

Throughout the building there are numerous examples where the lack of integration of services also adversely affects the design. Although the housing of main service runs has been carefully considered, that same care has not extended to include the actual service outlets. For example, diffuser grilles are popped randomly into surfaces in the music room, 38, and the layouts of fluorescent lumps are ill-considered in relation to the spaces which they light. Similarly, the choice of desk-mounted fittings finished in white does not integrate well into the otherwise finely designed library, and the sudden appearance of white smoke detectors in the chapel ceiling seems particularly insensitive.

The college has two fine spaces: the chapel and the library are both beautifully designed and extremely well made rooms. Both are shown clearly on the face of the building yet they still reveal themselves with considerable surprise. The form of the chapel is developed out of the experience of these particular architects in the design of spaces for worship. It is a long, thin and quite dark room which is entered from one end, 27. The brick box, with a stepped screen wall of slabs of French ‘Massangis Jaune’ stone and finely detailed floors of brick and stone, creates a simple but powerful contemplative space. A glazed gallery connects balconies at either end, which provide space for additional seating and a specially made Frobenius pipe organ, 28. By contrast the giant billowing stained glass window behind the altar and beyond the brick box is strangely strident.

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While the chapel seems to be hollowed out of the solid, the library appears to be a large piece of timber furniture standing in a room. It is organised on three levels around central bookstack aisles which give access to reading galleries at either side. The detailing of the timber integrates the stacks, reading tables and gallery balustrades with great dehcacy. It is a delicacy which relies on the cumulative effects of the assembly of pieces rather than on the forms of the pieces themselves.

In this way it recalls the main staircase and museum of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art more than the library of that building. The timber extends to the great windows at either side of the library to form vertical timber fins coincident with the glazing grid. Consequently the quality of natural light within this space is the most impressive within the whole college. The large windows in the hall and chapel allow in light and view, but it is only in the library that these functions are tempered and enriched by the detailed design.

In seeking to redefine the collegiate form among the Edwardian residences of suburban Cambridge, the architects of the new Robinson College have made a forceful and committed statement. Yet it is one which is neither suburban nor collegiate. The building that has resulted-with its clear sectional organisation of uses, urban forms and materials-appears to be more a fragment of the city than a new college of a historic university. While the design of some parts of this particular city fragment have been worked to refinement, other parts seem still quite schematic even in their final built form. Indeed the college, complete with its own ‘streets in the air’ is distinctly reminiscent of those high density urban developments so familiar in the late ’60s. At Robinson College this approach has successfully corralled car parking and reduced the area of site dedicated to access roads. However, it has also tended to compromise the users’ privacy, and that very synthesis of buildings and gardens which the designers so actively sought.

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