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Browsing the AJ Buildings Library: Ben Adams on the Cripps Building

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Discovering the Cripps Building at St John’s College, Cambridge, in the AJBL takes Ben Adams, founder of Ben Adams Architects, back to his student days

The University of Cambridge is an intimidating place to enter as an 18-year-old student of architecture. A wealth of great buildings, and minds, make up the history of each college and do little to soothe the nerves of the ‘fresher’. Nonetheless, the architecture provides a mixture of inspiration and awe that encouraged me to study at Cambridge in the first place.

Studying architecture is a novel endeavour: divorced as it is from the academic standards of maths, physics, art and so on. It is a subject that marries all these subjects into something rich, complex and satisfying. I enjoyed 12 hours of lectures each week on the history and theory of architecture, interspersed with two days of designing spaces in the studio.

We sought to find ways to reflect on 2,000 years of architectural history in designing simple buildings that might reflect the zeitgeist and move the discourse on.

This is no easy task, and it was bewildering for me until I happened upon the Cripps Building for the first time. In the back yards of St John’s College I suddenly understood that Modernism could coexist in a harmonious, but powerful, juxtaposition with the classical buildings of an institution that dates back to the 1200s.

The Cripps Building was designed for the college by Powell and Moya in the mid-1960s and completed by 1967. It is approached via the main route through St John’s, whose three austere courts give way to the enclosed Bridge of Sighs crossing the river Cam, and then the loggia of the Gothic Revival New Court. You turn right in the centre of this loggia, wind through a gloomy passage in the centre of New Court and emerge, quite literally blinking, into the first of the open courts of the Cripps Building.

The building is framed by its gardens that surround and flow under it and, to the east, by the river, whose banks form one edge of the east court. Two kinds of Portland stone make up the bones of the building, with elevations that are formed of a careful grid of windows that push in and out along the perimeter line. The frame of the building is all that touches the ground for large parts of the plan, with its mass suspended above. This opens out each new court to its neighbouring spaces and disturbs the rigid sequence of courts that define the earlier parts of the college.

Despite the elevation of the ground storey, it is not really a Corbusian frame; the structural members are right on the perimeter of the building, and create the impression of a punched stone facade, rather than one that offers ribbon windows and a free plan behind the walls. Dropping below the first floor into the covered open spaces of the ground plane are effortless and beautiful staircases that dogleg around a half-landing to make modest yet enticing entrance ways to the floors above.

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As you ascend, the heritage of Cambridge’s more ancient halls of residence begins to assert itself in plan. Each stair serves eight rooms of three types: a narrow, dual-aspect slice, a square bay with oriel window and a smaller room beside the staircase. Two bathrooms and two ‘gyp rooms’ (kitchens) complete the unit of dwelling, and this pattern repeats throughout the building, with the exception of a small number of fellows sets (suites) that complete the plan.

The horizontality of this long, five-storey building is offset by strong vertical framing elements, and by those staircases that both drop down to the ground and punch through the main roof of the building to give access to a terrace. This is a fantastic outdoor space and was enjoyed for many years by students working, partying and trying to relax. It is closed now, but its elevated position offered a key vantage point from which to look back at the college and its neighbours along the river.

A materials palette of bronze, timber, concrete and stone is simple, elegant, austere and yet luxurious in a way that illuminates the architect’s early 1960s design ideals with a budget that allowed them to cut loose. I remain inspired by this building at a time when both universities and private developers are erecting so much student housing of mixed quality. The Cripps Building captures the spirit of 1960s architecture in a way that quietly reinforces the relevance of that decade to the older buildings of a revered institution. I learned a lot of architectural history at Cambridge, and a good deal about design. But it is this modern building, which celebrates the unique atmosphere of Cambridge’s cloistered spaces (while also pulling it apart), that resonates most strongly now. 

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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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