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Letters: Edward Cullinan has failed to listen

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I am a great admirer of Edward Cullinan as an architect but he does talk a lot of nonsense sometimes (News, aj 26.11.98). He gives a completely one-sided view of the protracted planning negotiations that took place on his mathematics building for Cambridge University. He fails to acknowledge that the fault for the delay lay principally with him and his client.

He is reported as saying that 'the planners' (does he mean me?) 'screamed at us to keep the field'. He overlooks the fact that the site is actually allocated for university development in the local plan and we even produced a planning brief! Inconveniently for Mr Cullinan (and the university), however, this brief asked for 'buildings set in space and a parkland setting' and of a scale that should be 'sympathetic to the site's surroundings'. This is not unreasonable given that the site lies in the heart of a residential area (not just the 'cluster of mock Tudor and Georgian homes' that he referred to disparagingly in his talk).

The university's original intention, with which we agreed, was only to accommodate the new mathematics building on the site (Anand and Mustoe's Isaac Newton Institute of Mathematics already occupies one corner of the site). However, during pre-application discussions the scheme started to grow with the inclusion of the computer department as well. In spite of being given the clearest possible advice from me that the site could not take this additional floorspace, Mr Cullinan went ahead and submitted the planning application unchanged. It should therefore have come as no surprise to him that the application was received with vociferous opposition from local residents and little sympathy from the planning authority.

Mr Cullinan credits the Royal Fine Art Commission with ending 'two years of unbelievable hassle'. Well, the rfac certainly supported the principal of the proposal (as indeed did we) but also shared our concerns about over-development. After its comments were received, Mr Cullinan took the advice that we had given him a year earlier and removed the accommodation that had been inserted for the computer department. The scheme was finally given planning permission in January this year.

As permitted, the development still represents a significantly higher plot ratio than the rule-of-thumb plot ratio that is being applied to university sites elsewhere in the area (particularly on Richard MacCormac's West Cambridge masterplan). Anyone visiting the site at the moment will be confronted by an enormous hole reminiscent of a Brazilian diamond mine in which a large part of the accommodation will be sunk. Bearing in mind the scale of the disruption that the development is causing to local residents I consider Mr Cullinan's remarks about them to be profoundly insulting.

And was that Mr Cullinan's colleague, John Winter, on the phone to me last week asking if we minded if they enlarged one of the basement areas by another 200m2? Why do I suddenly feel rather uncharitable?


Director of planning, Cambridge City Council

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