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Wilford: ‘Is Eddington an urban, suburban or rural settlement?’

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Cambridge’s new town deserves more rigorous scrutiny than the AJ gave it in its New Towns edition, writes Michael Wilford in a letter to the editor

I would like to comment, although somewhat belatedly, on your publication of the first phase of ‘Cambridge’s Brave New World’ in your 22 February printed edition together with some of the issues it raises.

How brave is this ‘new world’ and does the design maximise the opportunities and meet the expectations set out?

The stated objective of creating ‘a new urban district and extension of the City of Cambridge, centred on a mixed academic and urban community with ambitions to enhance both the City and University’ is both refreshing and exciting. A project of such profile and scale, sponsored by an enlightened client with high ideals, offers the opportunity to demonstrate the best of architectural and urban design in the UK at this time. The proposal therefore deserves close attention and critical appraisal.

Your extensive coverage does not include a masterplan for the whole project, thereby preventing an understanding of the relationship between the new community and the Cambridge city centre and between the section illustrated and subsequent phases of development.

Such omission also leaves unanswered questions regarding overall infrastructure patterns and the development’s relationship with adjacent low density residential neighbourhoods and surrounding agricultural and leisure activities. As illustrated, It appears to float as an island in what is essentially a flat open landscape. A north point on the plan and captions to the photographs would have been helpful to better understand aspects of the project.

The section of the masterplan illustrated appears to be a massing and functional zoning diagram without hierarchy, clarity and unity and a sense that it is a contribution towards, and has a relationship with, a greater vision. Individual development blocks and activities are defined by an apparently arbitrary layout of public corridors with contrasting activities, building scales, forms and spaces on either side. Expression of these corridors as divisions rather than unifying streets in the traditional sense undermines their potential as micro-social foci within the overall spatial and circulation pattern of the development.

It is difficult to discern focused residential and academic communities and a relationship between them. There is little evidence that, as claimed, the plan ‘builds upon the richly layered collegiate urbanism that defines Cambridge.’

It is curious that the market square, described as the civic centre of the new community, appears dominated by a supermarket. It is also sad that the central power plant chimney is described as the primary orientating architectural element in the urban composition. Both appear to be examples of skewed emphasis.

There is also little sense of diminishing intensity and scale of built form and a corresponding increase in open space from the centre to some edges of the plan, thereby creating an abrupt transition between the urban and rural landscapes. Within the published plan it is not possible to determine which boundaries of the first phase are permanent and which will be modified in subsequent expansion.

Despite, or maybe because of, the involvement of a plethora of design quality panels, development boards and extensive design reviews, the project appears to have been designed by committee. It lacks an overall unifying vision and idea in its basic organisation and massing – a deficiency which cannot be redressed by devices such as a limited material palette, height limits and other design codes. In this instance the use of the same brick and dark window colours, together with extensive punched and vertically striped window patterns, tends to create a somewhat institutional environment.

The project appears to have been designed by committee. It lacks an overall unifying vision

It is also difficult to discern the benefit of the design reviews between the various architects involved. They have created a series of self contained and self referential islands with little reference to each other – a true architectural ‘zoo’.

Unfortunately the collection of irregular residual spaces between buildings in each of the islands fails to contribute to a unifying urban realm. The connection made in the project description between the proposal and the ‘richly layered collegiate urbanism of Cambridge’ seems to be only lip service. It is not possible to discern any such influence in the project to date.

One shining exception is MUMA’s Storey’s Field Centre – an exemplar in architectural design and urban response. Although in a somewhat curious relationship with the street and site boundary, it is a pleasure to witness the clarity of the plan organisation and three dimensional expression of the various activities it contains within a unified whole. It is also a very successful example of the spatial and functional integration of the exterior of a building into a meaningful relationship with the interior.

Despite all the effort I do not believe the design of the first phase of development is particularly brave and innovative, repeating many of the current problems with isolated and fragmented additions to the fringes of our towns and cities without identity and apart from convenience, making no contribution to the quality of life. It is disappointing that the interest from government and abroad referred to in your project description is not rewarded with a better demonstration of UK architectural and urban design talent.

In your article there is no reference, apart from sustainability and other technical issues, to a philosophical position underlying the design nor recent research on the evolving nature of the city in the 21st century and its re-imagination. Is this an urban, suburban or rural settlement? Is it self-contained or dependant?

I believe a rigorous debate in the AJ on the issues highlighted by this project is overdue and that the architectural press has a responsibility to stimulate it with frank, honest criticism rather than mere project description. I would be interested to read what, for example, William Curtis or Peter Buchanan would have to say about the Eddington project. I look forward to any proposals you may have as to how the AJ can contribute to such a debate. Maybe you could launch a wider and more encompassing competition for architects and students, similar to your recently announced ‘Retail Destinations’.

Response from AJ architecture editor Rob Wilson

Thanks for your comments, Michael. I take on board your point about omitting to show the masterplan in its wider context and how it connects to the main city. Unfortunately this was due to considerations of space; we will add more material in the online version.

The focus of the issue was on the completed Phase 1 element of the scheme as a newly realised piece of urban realm. The plan we did include explains the overall layout and was chosen specifically for its Nolli map-like picking-out of shared spaces, both inside and outside. This was to emphasise the connective tissue of shared space in the development between and within the blocks and the civic-ness at centre of the development. 

Regarding the urban realm, which you suggest looks both like an architectural ‘zoo’ but also institutional, on the ground the experience is one of a fairly successful balance between cohesion and variation in the streetscape, given that further richness will only develop through occupation and use. Elements that might seem overbearing at present, like the supermarket (which, I would argue, is appropriate for a market square – and better sited there than out of town) will bed down, with the supermarket joined by other shops and activities. 

Certainly the ‘island’ nature of the development – perhaps inevitable at first, given its greenfield site – and the abrupt transition between urban and rural will be softened once later phases, with less dense and lower-rise streets of houses are built. I don’t think the either/or question of whether it is dependent or self-contained is the right question to ask. Eddington is designed to be an extension of the city but also an urban district with its own centre, which is one reason why it is so interesting.

We welcome ‘rigorous debate’ and take seriously our role as a forum for thoughts raised by what I’m glad you agree is an important development.

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