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Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

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This conversion of an Edwardian stable block marks a change of direction from the Neoclassicism of the college’s existing buildings

BRIEF • CLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • AXONOMETRIC • GROUND FLOOR PLAN • SECTIONS

Downing is something of an anomaly among Cambridge colleges. Founded in 1800 through the bequest made by George Downing, third baronet, whose grandfather had laid out Downing Street, the college is alternately described as the first of the new colleges or the last of the old.

Unlike preceding colleges, which had grown up piecemeal over the centuries, Downing was planned as a single, coherent entity by the Neoclassical architect William Wilkins. Only the east and west wings of Wilkins’ proposed horseshoe plan were completed, however, with the north wing, which linked the two, having to wait until after the Second World War. Since then, Classicism has remained the college’s style of choice. Over the past 30 years it has commissioned a quartet of buildings by Quinlan Terry, the most recent being the Howard Theatre, completed in 2009.

To what degree Caruso St John’s Heong Gallery marks a definitive change of direction for the college remains an open question. But it was interesting to hear the master of Downing College, Geoffrey Grimmett, describe this modest and unassuming conversion of an Edwardian stable block as the college’s ‘most modern building’.

The new gallery is the most prominent component of a much larger reconfiguration of area to the left of the college’s main entrance. As far as the college’s bottom line is concerned, the most important aspect of this is the conversion of Parker’s House, a 1980s commercial building facing on to Regent Street, into accommodation for graduate students, which can then be rented out in the summer.

The immediate feel of the gallery is a domestic one

The original intention was to create a new art gallery within the redeveloped Parker’s House. But in a move that in retrospect seems quite obvious, Caruso St John identified the nearby Edwardian stables – then being used as an ‘old maintenance shed’ – as a far better location for the gallery. Not only would it have much greater visibility for those entering the college, but with the opening up of the service yard between Parker’s House and the stables, it would also allow the creation of a new, intermediary quadrangle: First Court.

Entering the college grounds from Regent Street, it is actually quite hard to believe that First Court has not always existed in its present guise, and simply been made over. On entering the court for the first time, I walked without thinking forwards to the gallery, only to be redirected across the courtyard to the new entrance of Parker’s House where I was supposed to be headed. This is as it should be; the visitor led instinctively towards the public building, while the private building remains visible, but secondary.

Enclosed by a low wall of reclaimed bricks, First Court itself has been finished in Roman concrete, which is made from volcanic lava and therefore more porous and textured than normal concrete. Built-in oak benches and five carefully positioned trees slightly soften the studied roughness, which otherwise continues into the gallery’s large cast-iron door handles. Caruso St John was clearly keen that First Court did not lose its working qualities, and it is this that helps one feel at ease here. It is a space that one is able to inhabit freely, rather than being on best behaviour as one is forced to be by the grand Classical ensembles elsewhere in the college.

A large square window manages to appear a little like an artwork in its own right

One enters the gallery through a new single-storey extension to one end of the old stable block. The immediate feel is a domestic one. A fireplace, originally located elsewhere in the building, sits next to a large square window, which provides a striking framed view of the East Lodge Garden outside. The domestic tables and chairs that lie in front of the fireplace work to avoid the cold formality of the person behind the desk that most often greets you when you enter a gallery, ensuring that this is a space for people to dwell in rather than just visit. In its architect’s statement, Caruso St John notes how Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard – the former home and now gallery of the 20th-century art collector Jim Ede – was a constant reference. And it is in this entrance where that is most obvious, though it seems a little forced. It will be interesting to see how long the entrance stays so obviously domestic.

Beyond timber fold-out doors, complete with a lovingly carved recessed handle, is the gallery itself. It is a long, quite narrow space, lit by the angled rooflight that runs its entire length, and supported on a dull day by carefully positioned strip lights. There are no gallery spotlights here.

The dark tiled floor that runs throughout the gallery is a thing of subtle beauty. It would have been very easy and perhaps safer to go with the default option of polished concrete, but I’m glad they didn’t as the tiling works well. It continues the domestic feel of the entrance, though in a far less heavy-handed way, allowing the gallery to feel both private and public.

A large square window at the far end corresponds with the one in the entrance, but rather than merely expressing the connection with the rest of the college, here it manages to appear a little like an artwork in its own right.

The gallery’s opening exhibition is a series of mid-20th-century paintings from the collection of Downing alumnus and art historian Alan Bowness, a former director of the Tate, which it accommodates well. It will be interesting to see how the narrow space deals with sculpture or larger-scale pieces. Rumour has it that a future exhibition will see parts of Ai Weiwei’s Tree, formerly in the courtyard at the Royal Academy in London, erected in the college grounds in dialogue with a display in the gallery.

As I made my way to leave, I glanced at Quinlan Terry’s nearby Maitland Robinson Library (2003) which, though seemingly designed to draw attention, I had somehow ignored. Even in Downing’s overtly Classical context, its bombast jarred. Although small and restrained in appearance, the impact of the Heong Gallery looks to be far greater and more lasting, sitting as a quiet intermediary – both spatially and programmatically – between the inner and outer worlds of college life.

Axonometric

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Ground floor plan

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Sections

CSJ Drawings SECTIONA

CSJ Drawings SECTIONA

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Source: Ioana Marinescu

Brief

Caruso St John has transformed the college’s Edwardian stable into a new gallery space dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The job follows the practice’s 2009 redevelopment of the college’s dining hall, which dates from 1818.

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Source: Ioana Marinescu

Client’s view

Geoffrey Grimmett, master of Downing College

The opening of the Heong Gallery is a milestone moment for Downing College. Together with the new chapel organ and the recent Howard Theatre, the gallery is an integral element of a tripartite development of artistic activities and ambitions across the college. It differs from the chapel and the theatre, however, in that it mostly looks outwards from the college, and we hope it will attract many visitors who might otherwise pass by our gates.

The establishment of an art gallery has been quite a journey, one that has reached completion only with the help of our many friends. I offer special thanks to Alwyn Heong for his great generosity, and for his recognition of the impact of the gallery on our cultural life, and also to Chris Bartram, who has championed this project since its inception six years ago.

We are fortunate to have secured the services of Caruso St John as architect for the conversion of our former stable, and we are delighted with its transformation. This new gallery joins its larger cousins, The Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle’s Yard, in offering visual art to the residents of Cambridge and beyond.

I make special mention of Susan Lintott, our senior bursar, whose vision and labours have brought this gallery and exhibition into being. In so doing, she has received wonderful support from our development and building teams.

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Source: Ioana Marinescu

Project data

Completion January 2016   
Gross internal floor area 178m² 
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect Caruso St John
Client Downing College
Structural engineer Philip Harvey Associates
M&E consultant WSP
Quantity surveyor Robert Lombardelli Partnership
Daylight consultant Arup
Project manager Robert Lombardelli Partnership
Landscape consultant Studio Karst
Planning consultant Beacon Planning

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Heong Gallery at Downing College by Caruso St John

Source: Ioana Marinescu

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