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Cambridge geometry

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PROJECT PROFILE; STUDENT HOUSING Sutherland Lyall reports on the Brian Pippard Building at Clare Hall

Following the well established act of a serious architectural performer is something ambitious practices might think well worth avoiding. Especially in that hothouse of 60s and 70s architecture, Cambridge. But Nicholas Ray Associates has always admired what Ralph Erskine designed at Clare Hall and it has followed that up, pulling off a coup

The latest building at Cambridge's Clare Hall is by Erskine-admirers Nicholas Ray Associates. It is a red brick three-storey wedge closing the south boundary of a courtyard on the edge of the site. It has three family flats for graduate students and 15 single rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Unlike the work of most followers this is quite as accomplished as the Erskine originals, the sort of architecture a more mature Erskine than the designer of the 1960s would have come round to.

Despite Ralph Erskine's dottiness on the subject of getting rid of rainwater in as gauche a way as possible, Clare Hall has always been well regarded by architects and, apparently, is enjoyed by its academic occupants. Just across the road from the back of Scott's university library, Clare Hall is an unusual Cambridge institution. A 1966 offshoot of Clare College, it has a few floating fellows, nearly 140 postgraduate students, no undergraduates and little of the traditional college pomp and high table. Chronologically it sounds like 1960s alternative society stuff but actually it is the result more of a desire by Clare College to emulate progressive US university ideas about intellectual forcing houses. In the background there is also an admiration for Scandinavian notions of social democracy, which probably explains the Anglo-Swedish Erskine's original appointment as architect for the hall.

Nicholas Ray has been involved with the college since the mid 1980s when the practice acted as executive architect for a new wing based on Erskine's design. In 1990 it was appointed to masterplan the site and was commissioned to design the Pippard Building in 1995. It follows the Erskine pattern of wedge-shaped buildings with aluminium cat-slide roofs and simple brickwork, on to which such things as balconies are hung. But beyond using this model Nicholas Ray Associates has developed its own language.


The elevations and the photographs suggest that this is a rather assertively simple geometric shape. But because you can only see the north elevation from the closer quarters of the courtyard it now borders, and because you approach the south elevation obliquely up a private road which has the high wall of the football ground on the other side, you never really get to see the stark geometry: it's actually a comfortable, unassertive building which you come across quite gradually.

Most of the windows are in the north and south elevations and, because of the need for solar protection, the architects have mapped out a section of the facade, added balconies and sunshades and clad the walls in this section with 300mm silver-grey ceramic tiles, the colour of which is matched by the painting of the metalwork. The few windows which don't fit into this schema are simply left as holes punched deep in the surrounding red brick walls. On the north elevation the elements of the composition are more complicated, with the diagonal balustrade of an external staircase carved into the wall, the diagonal plan of the entrance and additional random windows, some in pairs, plus a glimpse of the big skylight over the hall set at a interesting but mildly disturbing angle.

Visible lintels

The brick is a relatively bright red and laid in stretcher bond. It was chosen in conjunction with the local planners to match the Erskine original - although it is not absolutely identical. Nicholas Ray has departed from Erskine's detailing: openings have visible steel lintels which, somewhat perversely, don't extend to sit on the brickwork either side but end at the edge of the opening. These are visually and physically hefty mild- steel channels and in a number of cases are part of the support system for cantilevering brackets for balconies and sun shades. The architects could hardly not attempt a better version of rainwater downpipes than the bizarre Erskine efforts. The complex and quite elegant array of brick half piers, curving concrete and strapped tubular aluminium to be found at the end of the great sloping roof is both a homage to and a critique of the master's work.

Complex plan

The standard way to plan the layout of this building would probably have been to run a corridor down the middle with graduate rooms off on either side. But this is a place for people to live and work in which called for more imaginative spaces. And the plan had to incorporate three flats. There was the added 'self-imposed' complication of the architects having decided to insert a diagonal element in the form of a mini-atrium over the entrance area. At first the diagonal seems arbitrary but in fact it relates to the geometry of paths in the existing courtyard. With these external constraints in mind, the plan is nicely complicated with one group of rooms arranged on three storeys around the atrium-ette and the three flats plus two single rooms located in the other, lower half and accessed by an external staircase and a small internal stair. At the top is the plant room, suggested on the high west elevation by a big louvred opening.

Energy efficient

With its architectural and social background you would not be surprised that Nicholas Ray has designed the Pippard Building to be energy efficient. As the building's services engineers have shown, running costs are significantly lower than the Hall's existing accommodation - no less than 60 per cent. This is largely the consequence of heavy insulation of the ground floor, walls and roof, plus double glazing with low-E glass. The performance figures are way below those demanded by the Building Regulations, with walls incorporating insulated 150mm cavities.


The President and Fellows of Clare Hall


Nicholas Ray Associates

Structural engineer

Peter Dann & Partners

Services engineer

Max Fordham & Partners

Landscape architect


Main contractor

F W Cocksedge & Sons

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