Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Court of appeal

  • Comment

Pembroke was one of the earliest Cambridge Colleges, founded in 1347 by Mary de St Pol, the Earl of Pembroke's widow. It started at the southern edge of the city next to the main London road, Trumpington Street, and its Old Court, completed in the 1460s, was the first example of the type that gathers all elements of college life around a single closed space. This much-rebuilt starting point has remained the entrance and nucleus, while the rest of the college spreads across the site behind, so that today it fills the whole area between Trumpington Street, Pembroke Street and Tennis Court Road.

The plan falls into two: the western half - including Old Court, Ivy Court, Library Court and the Wren Chapel - remains much as Alfred Waterhouse left it after his rebuilding programme of the nineteenth century. The eastern half centres on the huge former bowling green. Its north-east corner was taken up by Giles Gilbert Scott's New Court from the 1880s, and in 1933 the south-east corner became the site for Maurice Webb's Master's Lodge, with generous gardens. The last major piece of construction was Marshall Sisson's anachronistic Neo-Georgian Orchard Building, placed along the east edge of the Green in 1958.

A decade ago the college decided it wanted to add more student rooms, a fellow's set, and various other facilities. After careful study, Eric Parry concluded that the south-east corner was most appropriate for redevelopment, provided that the somewhat suburban Master's Lodge - well-built, but requiring space on all sides - could be demolished. This was agreed, provided that a new lodge be incorporated, and it allowed Parry to rework the whole south-east corner of the site. Seeing the college as a chain of partly open courts, he added a new one, which both contains the corner and addresses the central green. Two wings placed strictly at right angles (the formal cloister) offer their classically rhythmic fronts to a perfect area of flat lawn in a typical Cambridge pose. One might expect a third side or a fourth, but in keeping with the other 'broken' courts, the margins are left somewhat ambiguous. The western tract runs on into the new Master's Lodge, with a change in fenestration and separation of the Master's garden at ground level by a pergola. The northern side remains visually continuous with the green, but its edge is effectively defined by a line of mature trees and the college's spinal east-west path.

On its rear side, the building is largely pulled back from the site boundary to create courts and lightwells for ground-floor rooms and a forecourt for the Master's Lodge. On the east side it also absorbs the shifting site geometry, disdaining Tennis Court Road for the right-angle of its cloister front: in terms of backs and fronts this is a major act of definition. At the northern end, the vulnerable ground floor could become a blind car-park, so an added tract fills in to meet the road. On upper floors this allows more rooms and the formation of a small irregular raised court to terminate the wing and open up its corridor. The rhetoric of the facade at this point is protective wall, not open frame. Since the new building now provides the first access point from the east for the whole college precinct, it also needed to offer an entrance. Here, for just three bays, back reverts to front, adopting the front's expressed frame, but this is not enough to suggest that it is more than a minor entrance. The entry route passes through the hall of the north-south wing and past the staircase which is its main vertical circulation axis. This point is marked on the roof by a delicate glazed lantern containing a prismatic artwork, a very necessary landmark identifying this important corner from both sides to show the way through.

While considering the site relationships, Parry was equally concerned with the quality of the individual student room. The rational and economical central corridor layout, which allows centralised bathrooms and disabled access from the single lift, made the rooms necessarily single-aspect. For flexibility of furniture placement, a simple but carefully dimensioned rectangle was desirable. Design effort went into two areas: the staggered party wall that swallows wardrobes and washbasins to both sides, and the outside face. In the front facades each room is represented by a recessed bay, projecting forward what appears to be a constructional frame. This not only articulates the identities of the rooms in a Puginian manner, it also appropriately sets the scale of the building. The recesses make the rooms seem contained and protected, giving them a notional external space, an abstracted balcony. Inside, each room has a major and minor window, placed to define the limits of the recessed facade panel and offer varied possibilities for ventilation and lighting. Inside and out, the minor window has an unexpected impact, and the deft facade design is perhaps the most admirable invention in the whole development.

Where there are staircases, the facade rhythm changes and the putative frame steps back. These stairs are doubtless necessary for fire escape, but with the continuous corridors and grand corner stair, the common room at first-floor level and the roof-top lantern, the building feels corner- dominated. The stair is beautifully detailed in natural stone with delicate steel balustrades and tactile French oak handrails. It has enough central void to allow its height to be appreciated and its dramatic lantern to be looked into. One arrives in corridors with sumptuous naked oak flooring and maple door furniture, and that of the north-running wing breaks out on to the tiny court - really just a lightwell - which makes it an appealingly light and pleasant place.

The east-west wing terminates in the new Master's Lodge, approached by its own forecourt, cleverly cut off from student accommodation by the projecting two-storey wing of the fellow's set. It is a sumptuous house with a large formal dining room overlooking the garden on the ground floor and a through drawing room running the width of the building on the first. A separate formal stair allows the Master's guests to come and go in dignity without running into his children - very Cambridge! On the second floor, the student corridor runs through to the Master's private stair, presumably so that the number of bedrooms taken up by the Master's family can be adjusted from time to time. Externally, the different scale and rhythm of the house are acknowledged in a somewhat Loosian facade, which lights the larger rooms with rhythmic vertical windows in a thoroughly traditional manner. Parry tends to avoid Modernist transparency, which occurs in an unbridled way only in the glass link at the end of the court in the north wing.

All in all, it is a most impressive building, particularly in the careful detailing and choice of materials, and it confirms Parry as a major talent of his generation. The question of whether one would happily live there is quickly answered in the affirmative, and students met on a visit could scarcely believe their luck. From a more public viewpoint, Parry's court facade is especially admirable, with a sense of timeless repose and dignity reminiscent of the Cripp's building at St John's, perhaps the best post- war Cambridge building of this type. Unlike most other new college buildings, it is not gimmicky or overdecorated, and should not too quickly date. The low-pitched metal roof is efficient, chronologically ambiguous, and suitably unobtrusive. The style of the corner lantern is also nicely judged.

If I have niggling doubts about the building they lie in two areas. The first is to do with the putative frame, really just a rhetorical device imposed as cladding. Cold-bridges and damp-penetration problems forbid direct expression of the frame as pursued in the 1960s, and cause all kinds of design headstands. The worst in this case is the flashing needed to catch the rain at the bottom of each recessed bay, which is particularly visible from above, and turns up at the edge as flashings should. Technically, I know . . . but visually, one would simply rather it was not there. There is also a sense of loss in discovering that the underlying discipline of trabeation as witnessed in the work of Terragni, for example, is not really present.

The other doubt is about a kind of figure-ground reversal: are we dealing with a court or a corner-entered L-shaped object? The major social rooms are ambiguous, for the Nihon room (named after the Japanese sponsor) definitely belongs to the court, while the rear-facing common room stresses the corner. The flip between versions is most keenly felt in the feeble pergola which defines the margin of the Master's territory, and with the facade which runs through into his house. I find that I really want a third side to the court here to make it more cloister-like, and I notice that photographers also tend to cut the building at this point. Granting that Pembroke has a tradition of open courts caused by projecting wings becoming objects, and accepting the open fourth side with its large-scale trees, I still feel that the division from the Master's garden could be stronger.

Postscript by Eric Parry

The criticism and questions raised by Peter Blundell Jones over the lack of a third wing to the west side of the new court are perceptive. In the original feasibility study of 1988 a wing was proposed, but during the development of the design a nineteenth-century restrictive covenant between Pembroke College and its neighbour to the west, Peterhouse, was discovered. This precluded overlooking as a result of an acrimonious exchange between the two colleges over the siting of the Waterhouse library, and was invoked to prohibit the building of our west wing.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.