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New Court, Clare College, by van Heyningen and Haward Architects

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An L-shaped building completes a Cambridge masterplan begun by Giles Gilbert Scott in the early 20th century, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Will Pryce

At Clare College, Cambridge, two very different buildings by Giles Gilbert Scott stand little more than 100m apart. His Memorial Court, completed in 1924, presents a sombre neo-Georgian grace. Its main courtyard is grey brick, and its delicate eaves represented a return to decorum and stillness six years after the First World War.

To the south, looming above the courtyard (and Arup Associates’ intervening 1986 Forbes Mellon Library), the 1934 Cambridge University Library radiates a compelling fusion of ur-Bankside and Gotham City-esque municipal headquarters.

The buildings confront each other on a north-south axis like the poles of an architectural magnet, charging the air with both a perfected past and Gilbert Scott’s humane ‘middle line’ between modernism and traditionalism. It is in this challenging ground that van Heyningen and Haward Architects’ New Court stands. Its courtyard, virtually enclosed by an L-shaped conference and student accommodation building, completes the inferred original Memorial Court masterplan by mirroring Thirkill Court, which is on the eastern side of the ensemble.

New Court presents three typologies: sub-monumental, college domestic, and what might be called eclectic rural. The design, carried through by project architect James Gallie, takes no brusque counter-positions to Gilbert Scott’s architectural and spatial quietism, yet risks were taken in New Court’s varieties of mass, elevational shifts, and haptic tractions. Some design choices, reached after considerable equivocation, have had a decisive effect on the scheme as a whole.

It’s no surprise to learn from both Gallie and practice partner Joanna van Heyningen that the materiality of the accommodation wing, for example, generated extremely heated debate. The practice won the New Court competition in 2005, beating Allies and Morrison and Tim Ronalds Architects with a scheme that havered by presenting two alternatives: a broadly deferential all-brick design and a more distinctly modernist response. There’s no hint of this controversy in the plan, section and Max Fordham’s low-tech environmental strategy. The ground floor of the southern wing arm of New Court contains meeting and computer rooms, and Fellows’ studies, split by a central corridor. On the two floors above, the students’ 34 study-bedsits, again simply divided by a central corridor, are book-ended by unusually large kitchens awash with daylight from large, low-silled windows.

The building’s western wing contains the Gillespie Centre, with conference spaces on the ground floor that open on to the courtyard via a loggia. There is a double-height first-floor volume and a steeply raked subsurface auditorium. The lift core, wrapped by the primary concrete staircase, rises from the base of the auditorium to second-floor level. This, combined with flat thresholds into the accommodation wing and conference centre, ensures straightforward disabled access. The entrance area of the accommodation wing is unremarkable in atmosphere; the threshold of the Gillespie Centre has more character, but has been confused by a peculiar glazed floor-to-ceiling firebreak – demanded by an abstruse fire regulation – that juts like a flange across the entrance area.

New Court’s programmatic simplicity was compelled by the tightness of the site’s edge along Burrell’s Walk, and by a £6.3 million budget that leaves Gallie in awe of two cash-lavished buildings admired since his student days at Cambridge: Eric Parry’s 1997 Foundress Court at Pembroke College, and Hopkins Architects’ 1995 Queen’s Building at Emmanuel College. Gallie frets about New Court’s off-the-shelf programming, but the more complex and characterful architectural issues of the scheme lie elsewhere. They begin with the way van Heyningen and Haward rebalanced Gilbert Scott’s overall layout by driving narrow connecting passages through the east and west ranges of the central courtyard, creating a through-connection between New Court and Thirkill Court. The Portland stone bands that run beneath the line of ground-floor windows have been turned into the walls of the passages, and frame their entrances with slim vertical edgings and elegant lintels whose radiuses precisely match the radiuses of the window frame heads.

The entrance details of these passages have a timeless, thoroughly deferential quality; a chasteness of colour and texture. One enters New Court through the new western passage: straight ahead, the brick and the well-applied vertical cedar boarding on the timber frame structure of the accommodation wing; to the right, the low south-facing facade of Memorial Court; and to the left, the weightily tectonic conference centre.

The two most obviously debatable aspects of New Court relate to the accommodation wing’s montage of brick and timber, both in itself and in relation to the Gilbert Scott facades it addresses. On the courtyard side, the wing’s facade is essentially smooth: the glazing is more or less flush with the outer leaf of the underlying timber frame structure and, apart from a thin, black U-profiled horizontal metal fillet providing a faux shadow-gap between brick and timber, there is no significant visual clutter.

The timber, says Gallie, was meant to impart smoothness and softness in contrast to the brick. In this it fails, but succeeds in another way. The facade faces south and, because of this, the surface of the flush-pointed brick remains shadowless, like an evenly smudged pastel ground, or the fabric of a pair of careworn, mid-grey flannels. When the cedar fades to silver-grey, the pastel effect will be complete and uncontroversial – the polite but slightly forced conversation between this facade and Gilbert Scott’s will lapse into comfort.

The northern facade of the accommodation wing faces what Clare College refers to as the ‘bosky [wooded] edge’ of Burrell’s Lane, and it is here that Gilbert Scott’s architectural hymnsheet has been literally concertina’d into a facade that is saw-toothed in plan. Gallie says this was to maximise natural daylight in the study bedsits on the dark side of the wing, and to provide a sense of surveillance in the lane. But the angles also emphasise verticality, and draw the eye towards the rising articulations of the library’s 48m central tower. The timber and bricks on this facade will weather slowly and with more colour-range – a dank, bosky edge, indeed.

The all-brick conference centre not only completes the tableau of the courtyard, but relates with brio to the library’s main facade. The centre is like a squat, crisp-edged power substation, whose brick facades are textured and pocked by micro-shadows because of the narrow sun-angle. The wing is also given wonderful character by the scale of the loggia, pillars and oak facings addressing the courtyard, and by the deeply recessed windows that boldly front-up the library.

The composition of this wing, and its brick palette (70 per cent Vauxhall Grey, 30 per cent Gloucester Grey) is a thoroughly engrossing critical response to both Gilbert Scott’s 1924 and 1934 modes. Internally, features such as the indented, bathtub-moulded concrete beams, the deep, oak-lined window reveals, and the big east-facing windows set high up in the triple-coffered ceiling, are familiar van Heyningen and Haward moves.

The fundamental pleasure of Gilbert’s Scott’s two buildings at Clare College lies in the tensions of their differences – an allowance of time, and change. Van Heyningen and Haward’s New Court stretches time, place and architectural manner in yet another satisfying way.

Tender date October 2006
Start on site date July 2007
Contract duration 18 months
Gross internal floor area 2,000m²
Form of contract JCT 98 WCT (design and build)
Total cost £6.3 million (includes landscaping and works to existing buildings, but excludes fees)
Cost per m² £3,100
Client Clare College, Cambridge
Architect van Heyningen and Haward Architects
Structural engineer Scott Wilson
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Gleeds
Landscape architect Robert Myers Associates
Planning supervisor Dearle and Henderson
Main contractor Haymills
Annual CO2 emissions 50.37kg/m² (predicted)

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