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Is 6a architects' Cowan Court really timber Brutalism?

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6a architects’ Cowan Court may echo the Brutalist courtyards of the Grade II-listed Churchill College campus but is it really Brutalist?, asks Jay Merrick 

CLIENT’S VIEWSPECIFICATION • PROJECT DATA • PLANS • AXONOMETRIC • DETAIL

The architecture of Cowan Court at Churchill College, Cambridge, echoes the Brutalist courtyards of the Grade II-listed campus designed by Richard Sheppard (and then Sheppard Robson) and built between 1960 and 1968. That, at least, is the obvious thing to say, and Tom Emerson, co-founder of 6a architects, speaks of the new 2,420m² building as novel timber-built Brutalist architecture.

However, what makes Cowan Court’s architecture engrossing is its conceptual and physical ambiguity. One moment, the building presents itself as an utterly distinct, contextually defined object in the college’s 17ha landscape; and the next, it almost suggests a three-dimensional, anti-Brutalist artwork.

Nominally, Cowan Court is Brutalist architecture in several ways. Like the 10 original residential courtyards, it is three storeys; the square concrete plinth of Cowan Court has the same footprint as the original structures; the plinth is board-marked in the same way as the horizontal concrete bands of the earlier buildings; the patterning of Cowan Court’s decorative frieze refers to the way the copper roof covering of the 1960s buildings folds well down over the parapets.

The B word could also be applied to the massive, mostly unseen elements of Cowan Court’s glulam structure – German-made, using Slovenian timber, very pre-Brexit – and to the single deliberately exposed glulam post and beam arrangement at the western corner of the courtyard; a gleaming, smoothly surfaced timber homage to the ruggedly interlocking concrete structural pieces holding up a bridging section of the college’s boiler-house complex.

One might also wonder if the architecture of Churchill College as a whole is conclusively Brutalist

Are these references necessarily and conclusively Brutalist? I’ll return to that question in due course. One might also, in passing, wonder if the architecture of Churchill College as a whole is conclusively Brutalist; the only original elements of the campus that instantly epitomise that mode are the blocky herniations of the chapel, the Churchill Archive, and the link block and boiler house segment, which is a superbly brusque collage of heavy, sculpted forms.

Cowan Court was designed to house 68 students in super-insulated, triple-glazed conditions (approaching Passivhaus standards), which are socially loose-knit and connective. The way 6a dealt with the social dimension is particularly notable. Two very well made concrete staircase structures, one enclosing a lift-shaft, rise near the north-east and south-west corners of the plan. On the upper floors, students debouch into enclosed cloisters, which wrap in continuous circuits around the birch-planted courtyard. Thus, all rooms face the outer landscape, all communal space faces the courtyard – very simple, very effective, implicitly convivial.

On the courtyard side, the ground-level rooms – three are suitable for disabled students, and the others are DDA-convertible – are overhung by the jettied second and third floor segment, whose oak-boarded façades contain concealed ventilation outlets. The doors of the ground-floor rooms open on to a concrete plank pathway around the courtyard, which mimics those in the original college courtyards, and also covers a services channel.

The bands of fenestration around the courtyard-facing sides of the upper floors are more or less continuous, and this produces the opposite of the original courtyards’ compressive, bay-windowed inner façades. The heart of Cowan Court seems to breathe easily, gathering light which is reflected by the glazing down into the space and on to the pale oak doors and facings of the ground-floor rooms.

The search for high levels of natural light is most obvious in the oversized windows on the campus-facing façades. From inside the upper-floor rooms, the views are very satisfying; on a brightish day in January, students could spend most of the day studying without their LED lighting modules, copied from the original college residence fittings.

The rooms radiate a pleasing sense of firmitas – the depth of the window boards, about 600mm, advertises the thickness of the glulam and 350mm of insulation in the walls; overhead, smaller glulam beams are revealed in the ceiling. The 20m² average size of the rooms is bigger than in most university residences.

The concrete staircase structures seem too pleasantly limber to fall into the Brutalism category

The alleged architectural brutality of Cowan Court is not profoundly evident in either the courtyard or the rooms; even the concrete staircase structures seem too pleasantly limber to fall into that category. The signifiers of Brutalism are present, but they ultimately usher us into a fugitive territory beyond that historically objectionable style.

Nowhere is this more teasingly evident than in Emerson’s highly original treatment of the building’s façades, which have become its headline image. This envelope is composed of seven irregular bands of grimy, somewhat battered, 30mm-thick vertical oak boards reclaimed from the floors of railway carriages. The top band of boards on the façades have shallowly routed pale ellipses – a reference to the cross-section of the aluminium prongs of the swivelling College Gate designed by Geoffrey Clarke. Emerson thinks of these decoratively routed marks as somewhat Classical; but they could also suggest Arts and Crafts by way of Op Art.

The Classical is also evoked by the reversed, concave entasis of the façades in plan, with the slight jettying of the upper levels accentuated by the glinting undersides of projecting aluminium profiles, which ‘turn’ almost imperceptibly every 3.5m – the width of the rooms’ outward-facing segments. Entasis reappears in the slightly curved articulations of the internal walls of the upper cloisters. The large, Devon double-cream-coloured window casings, whose regular rhythm breaks step at the building’s corners, incorporate substantial openable panels.

These façades create an object that, from any angle, suggests exploratory sketches morphing into architectural mass; the oak drawn deliberately smudgily with a blunt 4B pencil, the aluminium profiles with a sharpened 4H, and the window casings with a pale cadmium pastel stub. The crud on the oak boards undoubtedly includes carbon and clay, the constituents of pencil leads.

Gazing at Cowan Court, which sits quizzically rather than matily among the original courtyard buildings, recalls a remark uttered by Winston Churchill on 17 October 1958, when the 83-year-old planted an oak sapling to initiate the Churchill College project. ‘It is seldom easy,’ he said somewhat breathlessly on that windy day, ‘to grasp a new branch on a well-grown tree.’

Is Cowan Court a new branch of Brutalism? This engaging architecture, commissioned with admirable boldness by the college, and very well built by the contractor SDC, cannot be grasped by that question. Ultimately, Cowan Court’s architectural resonance lies in the way the very clarity of its references, materiality, and details has ultimately given it an unexpected aura of otherness.

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a architects

Source: Johan Dehlin

Plans

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a architects

Structural axonometric 

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a architects

Façade construction axonometric

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Detailed facade elevation and section 

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a architects

Client’s view

Unlike other proposals, 6a’s concept for an undergraduate accommodation building was based on a courtyard typology and felt like a natural fit for the site. Its proposal had a strong sense of materiality; it used timber in an original and contextual way in dialogue with the existing Grade II-listed college buildings with their exposed Brutalist concrete structure. The architecture reflected existing proportions, horizontal lines and richly detailed façades of the courts; it was as if it had always been there.

The project went through several design iterations during the eight years it took to take the building from fundraising to completion. This was partly due to rationalising the large number of room typologies, the unconventional construction in timber and finally having bay windows rather than balconies. It is to 6a’s credit that the original spirit and identity of the proposal was kept intact, even improved, during this process. It feels very much the building we chose in the beginning.

If there is one feature Churchill students tend to dislike in the existing college buildings, it is the lack of social space in courts and closed staircases. Cowan Court introduces a glazed gallery surrounding its inner courtyard. The gallery is beautifully proportioned, light, naturally ventilated and connects all rooms, fostering a sense of community right at the heart of the building. A quick student survey revealed they liked Cowan Court due to its spacious, well-illuminated and well-insulated rooms and the college’s ‘signature’ bay windows.

We are very proud of Cowan Court, and see it as a worthy addition to the college’s outstanding architectural legacy.

Minna Sunikka-Blank, fellow and director of studies of architecture, Churchill College

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a architects

Source: Johan Dehlin

Specification

Windows
Flexwood

Structure
B&K Structures and Engenuiti

Partitions and external wall buildup
G&A Group

Solid external doors
JP Stone

External cladding
SDC Special Projects

Glazed fire screens
Advanced Joinery

Bathroom pods
Offsite Solutions

Reclaimed oak
BCA (France)

Façade metal work
Aalco

Architectural metal work
Cobra

Roof and rainwater pipes
KGM

Cowan Court by 6a Architects

Cowan Court by 6a architects

Source: David Grandorge

Project data

Start on site March 2015
Completion July 2016
Gross internal floor area 2,420m²
Form of contract JCT Design and Build 2011
Construction cost £9.22 million
Construction cost per m² £3,800
Architect 6a architects
Client Churchill College
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E consultant Max Fordham
QS Gleeds
Landscape architect Jonathan Cook Landscape Architects
Façade consultant Harry Montresor Partnership
Planning consultant Beacon Planning
Project manager Aecom
CDM coordinator Gleeds
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor SDC Builders
CAD software used Microstation

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