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Jamie Fobert’s subtle transformation of Kettle’s Yard revealed

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After two years of development, the public opening of the newly expanded Kettle’s Yard house and gallery in Cambridge takes place on 10 February

Developed from the personal passion of collector and former Tate curator Jim Ede, Kettle’s Yard began its public life in 1957, when Ede opened the doors of his house every afternoon for people to view his collection.

Through his friendships with artists he gathered a remarkable collection of artwork and in 1966 he gave the house and its contents to the University of Cambridge. In 1970, the house was extended and an exhibition gallery added, both to the design of architects Sir Leslie Martin and David Owers, making Jamie Forbert Architects’ addition the latest in a series of transformations.

Carefully conceived to complement and enhance the qualities of the original house, the development includes new exhibition galleries, education spaces, a café and new welcome areas, greatly enhancing Kettle’s Yard’s offering as a centre for contemporary and modern art outside London.

Fobert architects kettle's yard cambridge ©hufton+crow 004

Kettle’s Yard by Jamie Fobert Architects

Source: Hufton + Crow

The new spaces have been configured to be a continuation of the meandering journey that begins in the cottages and moves through Sir Leslie Martin and David Owers’ 1970 extension. A new glass entrance area, framed in bronze, has been inserted into the entry courtyard.

Kettle’s Yard’s programmes for young people will be expanded, and the new spaces, including the Clore Learning Studio, will nearly double the capacity for learning activities. A public research space will enable academic research and artist and community engagement projects, utilising the collection and archive.

166 kettles yard 180201 19

166 kettles yard 180201 19

Ground floor plan - existing

Architect’s view

My work began at Kettle’s Yard in 2004, under the gallery’s then director Michael Harrison, with a competition to design an education wing in the newly acquired north-east corner of the site. When Michael Harrison sadly died, Andrew Nairne became director and his vision extended this work to include the creation of new galleries. 

Kettle’s Yard as a building has evolved through a series of additions. It began when Jim Ede purchased and transformed a set of dilapidated cottages to form the house, a place where contemporary art, historic and natural objects sit comfortably within a modest domestic interior.

The most important addition to the house is, of course, Sir Leslie Martin and David Owers’ 1970 extension, which I consider to be a masterpiece of late modern architecture. Following this, a series of small extensions were added as and when adjacent land became available. Each of these strove to continue the journey, but Andrew Nairne recognised that, collectively, they were unsuccessful as galleries.

A bold decision was taken to demolish everything between the 1970 extension to the retained Victorian façade on Castle Street in order to insert new, generous galleries and a welcome area, as well as completing the planned education wing.

166 kettles yard 180201 20

166 kettles yard 180201 20

Ground floor plan

The starting point for all of this work was my admiration for the 1970 extension. What is fascinating for me about Kettle’s Yard is the seamless continuity between the historic and the modern. Leslie Martin and David Owers’ work has a very distinct approach to materiality, light and detail. Many visitors would be amazed to realise that, in the extension, all the daylight comes from above and that there are almost no windows in the building at all. The double-height volume is in huge contrast to the intimate spaces of the House, yet you are never aware of this shift in scale.

The materials are modest, and simply constructed: brick and timber floors, a solid pine staircase and rough plaster walls. This gentle architecture allows the artworks and furniture to be the focus of attention. In fact, when, during the recent construction work, the extension was emptied of its contents, it was extraordinary to see the spaces quite bare and severe. My ambition was to complement the existing architecture with an equally modest new addition.

166 kettles yard 180201 25

166 kettles yard 180201 25


My respect for the 1970 fabric is manifest in the decision to carry out an element of restoration as a part of the project. Previously, visitors might have believed that Kettle’s Yard was perfectly preserved. While this is predominantly true of the House and its extension, the three small galleries to the side had been severely altered over time: the exposed brick walls had been plastered over; the massive brick bench had been replaced with a timber and plaster bench; and doors had been added to create a small learning space. We took the opportunity to restore these spaces back to their original state.

In terms of making new interventions, the resolution of circulation was a priority. Multiple front doors had previously caused confusion, yet I understood that the experience of entering the house through the narrow passage and ringing the bell at the small side door had been an essential moment in every visit to Kettle’s Yard since 1958. Therefore, the original entry to the house has been maintained.

However, ticketing and visitor information is now comfortably accommodated in a new and extended entrance area. A glazed screen and canopy has been inserted into the entry courtyard. Its black, patinated bronze frame makes reference to the heavier black timber of the old entrance, but in a new, more delicate language. Once inside, the winding journey through the House and 1970 extension has an idiosyncratic quality.

Likewise, as you move through the new spaces, ramps and stairs meander down past the galleries towards the education suite. Education, which is the raison d’être of Cambridge, takes place predominantly behind the closed doors of the colleges. The new Clore Learning Space attempts to reverse this. Its double-height volume, reminiscent of the central space of the 1970 extension, opens onto Castle Street, placing education quite literally at the fore of the new Kettle’s Yard. A black steel stair, simply and boldly detailed, continues the journey up to a research space, a second learning room and offices.

Fobert architects kettle's yard cambridge ©hufton+crow 012 (jfa edit)

Kettle’s Yard by Jamie Fobert Architects

Source: Hufton + Crow

Central to the present transformation is the creation of two new galleries, which allow Kettle’s Yard to mount exhibitions of a broad range of contemporary art practice. One gallery is top-lit, with rooflights constructed following Leslie Martin’s detail, while a second gallery has a large window opening onto Castle Street. This window also allows direct access for art works to the galleries. A shallow third gallery has also been created, visible only from the street.

For any museum or gallery, its commercial offer is vital. Kettle’s Yard has not had a café before, yet hospitality is very much part of its character. Jim Ede opened his home to students every afternoon of term for them to see and talk about art, and those who lingered were sometimes offered tea in the dining alcove in the house. We have created a new café and designed a bigger, much-improved shop.

It was important that these commercial elements of the project should feel appropriate and in tune with the whole of Kettle’s Yard. To this end, both the café and shop have had bespoke furniture created whose robust timber detailing is a direct reference to the reclaimed timber furniture which Jim Ede placed in his house.

Architects often speak about context; for me, more than any other project, Kettle’s Yard has had the most significant context. I have learned so much during the past few years working on Kettle’s Yard, especially having been privileged to share many wonderful conversations with the architect David Owers. It is of paramount importance to me that our new work will be seen as a part of a whole, rather than as a project on its own.

The visitor may understand the different building elements, but it is my hope that they will feel the inherent singularity of Kettle’s Yard as a place and sense the continuity of Jim Ede’s wonderful and enduring vision—a vision that has guided us through this long process.

Jamie Fobert, director, Jamie Fobert Architects

Fobert architects kettle's yard cambridge ©hufton+crow 018

Kettle’s Yard by Jamie Fobert Architects

Source: Hufton + Crow

Client’s view

Over the 13 years it has taken to reach this moment, and the two years of work on the building, many organisations and hundreds of people, including many artists, have given generously of their time, advice and support. I want to thank everyone. It is now time for us to open the doors of Kettle’s Yard and invite new visitors and old friends alike to discover the gallery. I believe Kettle’s Yard, with its remarkable collection and vibrant connections with artists of today, can be a beacon for the next generation.

Andrew Nairne, director, Kettle’s Yard

Project data

Start on site January 2015
Completion February 2018
Gross internal floor area 1,080m²
Form of contract NEC3/Design and Build
Construction cost £11 million
Architect Jamie Fobert Architects
Client Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Structural Engineer Elliott Wood
Architectural metalwork Basset + Findlay
Joinery Coulson
Concrete floors Lazenby
Lighting consultant Lightplan
Project Manager 3PM
Main contractor SDC
CAD software used MicroStation

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