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Pioneering Colin St John Wilson laboratory is demolished


A 1971 laboratory block in Cambridge designed by Colin St John Wilson’s practice and thought to have been one of the first buildings clad in Cor-ten steel has been flattened

The 2,100m², two-storey biochemistry laboratory on the Babraham Research Campus, south-east of Cambridge, was designed by Michael Brawne and Peter Carolin working with Colin ‘Sandy’ St John Wilson. It originally housed 47 staff and facilities for studying large animals such as cows and sheep.

Architect James Stirling described it as ‘the first High-Tech building’. 

According to the Babraham Research Campus, the empty block, known as B501, was no longer ‘fit for purpose for a modern-day research environment’ and was demolished ‘as part of the overall planning consent for redevelopment of the campus’.

However there are no current plans for a replacement building on the site.

Over the last five decades, it is understood the laboratory had been significantly altered, with the Cor-ten cladding removed in the 1980s because it had rusted through and become pitted with holes.

Even so, Twentieth Century Society head of casework Clare Price described ‘the destruction of this important building’ as regrettable. ‘The planning of these labs was meticulous, with Wilson devising a tri-partite separation of function to ensure the most efficient use of space,’ she said. ‘The building was designed with longevity in mind: the ability to extend was incorporated and materials carefully selected, such as the use of Cor-ten steel cladding intended to weather to a rich deep purple-brown.

‘It is, therefore, a great shame that it could not be retained as part of the redevelopment plans. The timing of the demolition is particularly unfortunate considering the recent loss of [Sandy’s wife and practice partner] MJ Long.’

But Peter Carolin, who worked on the scheme at St John Wilson’s then Cambridge-based office, was less disturbed by the demise of the building.

‘I designed Babraham, with the associated architect, Michael Brawne (based in London), looking over my shoulder,’ he said. ‘Sandy never did a single drawing of the building. MJ was not involved at any stage.

‘Michael suggested Cor-ten (Sandy wanted to clad it in tile) and influenced the design of the two ends of the building. The Cor-ten failed long ago and was replaced by anodised aluminium, proportioned and detailed in a different manner.’

I am not in the least surprised that it’s now been demolished

Carolin said the building was originally intended for biochemical research, and ‘accommodated large animals very close to the laboratories – something for which I found no precedents. Because it was vital that there should be no trace of animal urine fumes in the labs, I adopted a race-track plan in which part of one of the two ground floor corridors acted as an airlock. Over time, the nature of research undertaken changed but the building anatomy coped with that change for many years.

‘But it was a tight 1960s plan and I am not in the least surprised that it’s now been demolished. It’s certainly not a case of vandalism.’

B501 babraham inst

B501 babraham inst

Source: Babraham Research Campus

B501 pictured left

A spokesperson for the Babraham Research Campus said the building had been vacated in 2017 with the research groups relocated into a new bespoke building, but insisted the demolition had only been decided on after ‘careful evaluation and consideration’.

The spokesperson added: ‘Although the building had been designed with efficient use of space in mind, this did not translate well to the modern requirement for highly serviced laboratories. Having carried out a feasibility survey to understand the work required to try and bring it up to the standard of a modern-day laboratory building, it became apparent that the costs involved were prohibitive and we would not achieve the outcomes we required, in particular 21st-century laboratory equipment requires careful temperature control and this proved to be impossible to achieve.’

Architectural review 1971 nov p 290 296

Architectural Review 1971, November p290-296

Architectural Review 1971, November p290-296 


Readers' comments (6)

  • Peter Carolin's comment that 'the Cor-ten failed long ago' is hopefully not as alarming as it sounds, as presumably this material was specified in its early years - and has since been refined to improve its long-term performance. Otherwise there's going to be widespread trouble.

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  • ".......such as the use of Cor-ten steel cladding intended to weather to a rich deep purple-brown."
    Now, I know architects are masters at flowery language but I have never heard rust described thus.

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  • Ian - I've never heard of Cor-ten becoming 'rusted through and pitted with holes'.

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  • Interesting to have both the architect's view and original published piece.

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  • John Kellett

    If the 'Cor-ten' rusted through, was it Cor-ten? Did the manufacturer/supplier/contractor cheat the designers?
    Michael Brawne was one of the two heads of the Bath University School of Architecture whilst I was there, the other as Ted Happold. Both are very influential in my career, but to limited success yet :-) An 'all-rounder' architect with a Science degree (NOT an Arts one) who understands and can work, and has worked, with structural engineers is, seemingly, still an unwanted commodity despite the pioneering(?) work at Bath 40 years ago.

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  • A demolition always excites more comment on these pages! Dodgy cladding? Shades of Grenfell? Reclad in a nicer Cambridge colour with better insulation and use it for something more suitable? Asbestos in abundance? Those Sandy bricks were great, but in short supply now? Too expensive?

    There are more unsightly buildings everywhere these days. Possibly because we are building more? At least it wasn’t clad in untreated softwood like some new Churchill college abominations?! Reclad and build a pyre? Nov 5 or July 12 or 14!!

    Guido will bring the blow torch......💥🔥🔥🌈

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