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Ralph Erskine's Byker and Clare Hall cross paths

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[THIS WEEK] In a new photography show, a Cambridge college and Tyneside estate share subtle details, says James Pallister

In the early 1960s, the fellows of Clare College, Cambridge, were considering expanding the college. One Friday afternoon the master – tired after five years of prevarication – made it known that a decision must be reached the following day. Just back from a sabbatical year, professor Richard Eden recommended the college establish a post-grad research centre that would be mixed-sex, family friendly and non-hierarchical.

Supping a pre-prandial sherry in the common room, Eden, a sprightly 90-year-old, reminisces that his proposals were quickly adopted. The college took his detailed spec and ‘translated it into architecture-speak’.

Ralph Erskine, the only architect to advocate the use of ‘warm, people-friendly brick’ over the then fashionable unfaced concrete, won the job. The ambitions of the college were sympathetic to Erskine’s communitarian beliefs. Standard collegiate tropes were dispensed with – no high table or enclosed senior common rooms, and family flats in place of single rooms or two-room ‘sets’.

‘Path-Crossing’, currently showing across the college’s common room and dining area, brings together photographs by residents of both Clare Hall and one of Erskine’s later, more (in)famous schemes, the Byker Wall in Newcastle. Byker comes across a little shabbier than Clare Hall, but in the details – drains, steps, benches, gathering areas – the similarities are striking.

When I visited the show, there were several toddlers poking in and out of the walkways, and a handful of retired fellows were assembling for lunch. The photographs, together with different generations enjoying the shared spaces, go some way to articulating one of Erskine’s aspirations: ‘To learn how the presence of people will transform “space” into “place”. Instead of housing or working areas, we should strive to create places for living.’

On tour ‘Path-Crossing’ in London and Byker Wall www.clarehall.cam.ac.uk

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