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Churchill College re-examined

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As part of Cambridge University Land Society’s recent 50th anniversary, Churchill College held a ‘supercrit’ revisiting Sheppard Robson’s winning scheme and the three finalists in the ground-breaking 1959 design contest

Earlier this month, academics and architects gathered to celebrate the University of Cambridge’s design competition for Churchill College and the four schemes that vied to win the commission in 1959.

Organised by former Sheppard Robson partner Rod McAllister, the ‘supercrit’ format saw the original designs represented by experts in the field: Chamberlin Powell & Bon presented by Elain Harwood from English Heritage; Howell Killick Partridge presented by Alison Brooks; Stirling and Gowan presented by Patrick Lynch; and the winning Sheppard Robson proposal presented by Takeshi Hayatsu from 6A architects.

Each presentation prompted discussion from a panel comprising the former head of the Cambridge University school of architecture, ex-editor of the AJ and professor Peter Carolin; M J Long of Long & Kentish Architects; Spencer de Grey of Foster + Partners and professor David Dunster from the University of Liverpool. AJ editorial director Paul Finch chaired the discussion.

As with the University of Westminster supercrit series, on which the event was based, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the panel to suspend knowledge of what happened in the intervening period before passing judgement. On the other hand, asking people who did not design the projects to champion them provided added interest – the present becoming immersed with the past.

In all cases, the presenters had clearly fallen for the architects whose designs they were describing. Harwood noted how the Chamberlin Powell & Bon structural themes had been continued in later work, and how clever its site plan had been in combining not just Churchill College, but two other college proposals on adjacent sites.

Brooks was hugely impressed by the plasticity of the Howell Killick Partridge design. Its expressionist verve took inspiration from the engineering of the period, but the practice never realised anything quite like its design for Churchill.

Lynch’s labour-of-love Stirling and Gowan presentation was not uncritical, but it did make the case for it being a Postmodern building, not seen again in tone until the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart decades later. It found much favour with the panel too, particularly de Grey (who was in the first wave of students at Churchill College before it was fully completed).

In the end, it was possible to see why the original judging panel chose Sheppard Robson, even though the scheme as built was a much simplified version of the competition design.

6A architects’ Hayatsu explained how the relationship between main and subsidiary blocks, the connections between them and details of materials and ironmongery has inspired his practice 6A’s current work on a significant new courtyard block for the college.

The panel raised a series of issues during the discussion, several of which would have made interesting seminars in itself: the benefits and disadvantages of the courtyard plan; the urban or suburban character of the college and the creation of silo or linked spaces.

Mark Goldie, a reader in history and informal historian of the college, had begun the evening by setting the scene for the contest – to honour Winston Churchill and to give the university its first new college for a century. He concluded by welcoming Bill Mullins, the project architect for the winning design and then speculated as to how different the brief might be today – the answer being in almost every respect imaginable, from gender assumptions onward. Indeed the architectural past is also another country.

Cambridge University Land Society is the university’s oldest alumni organisation. Its new APEC Forum (Architecture, Planning, Engineering and Construction]), chaired by Brian Waters, aims to raise funds to support outside teaching and the students of the school of architecture through events and sponsorship.  Contact: http://www.culandsoc.com

Project background by Rod McAllister

Richard Sheppard Robson & Partners presented by Takeshi Hayatsu

Richard Sheppard Robson and Partners

Often described as the safe option – in that it ‘pressed the most buttons’ – the design could also be described as the most sophisticated. Early drawings by Bill Mullins indicate a grid of courtyards superimposed on landscape, now reminiscent of the later 2,000-ton City by Superstudio. This developed into a series of overlapping and ‘floating’ square courtyards that, in turn, surrounded a forum of central structures. It could be argued that the use of materials was more successful than might have been expected of the others.

Howell Killick Partridge presented by Alison Brooks

Howell Killick Partridge

Tipped as the favourite at the time, this entry was put together by four friends as a ticket out of the London County Council and into self-employment. While it didn’t win, the scheme caught the imagination of many and directly led to a string of successful academic projects for the team across Britain. The anthropomorphic concept pushes its tentacles across a parkland landscape. The bizarre sections could be described as Gothic or naive. Dunster remarked on the ‘ugly’ elevations.

Stirling and Gowan presented by Patrick Lynch

Stirling and Gowan

Definitely the ‘bad boys’ of the group: Stirling and Gowan ignored many parts of the brief. This simple and memorable concept frames the site with an Edo castle wall of student accommodation. Bold claims were made about its dominance on the map of Cambridge and similarities to Blenheim Palace (Churchill’s birthplace), but the imperial overtones were unpalatable for post-war Cambridge. Could this have become the first Postmodern building in Britain?

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon presented by Elain Harwood

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

Conscious of the remote location, this concept sought to draw together at least three new colleges being considered at the time around a grand boulevard and then link them strongly with the city centre using a direct cycle route. The proposal is unique among the four in developing a strategy for the development of the area around the site, rather considering the college as an ‘island’ within the suburbs of Cambridge.


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