Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pembroke College, Cambridge: big clock tower, minor Wren, medieval scraps

Like most of the older Oxbridge colleges, Pembroke is a hotchpotch. It does contain the genuinely old, but the old (that is, medieval) is often interesting just because of its small scale. Unfortunately it can rarely compete with Victorian exuberance and egotism, making the original buildings look puny, and as if that wasn't enough, you often find with old colleges the Victorian extravaganza was followed by some modern enhancements that often decides to compete with either or both of the other two styles. In the case of Pembroke, the genuinely old quad, 14th century no less, remains (at least about one side of it) but it has been so tampered with that you need a guidebook to explain what is original and what has changed. If you try hard you can imagine a real medieval quad, but to be honest, you have to import your idea from seeing one of the very few original and still recognizable medieval Oxbridge quads, such as Merton College Oxford. Even the front to Trumpington Street (shown above) has the original scale, but later stone refacing and the addition of two oriel windows. The result is more Tudor than medieval. 

Typical of the Victorians is that they would seemingly change things for the sake of it. Pembroke is famous because it contains Wren’s first building, the college chapel. It’s not the world’s greatest building, nor the worst – an acceptable enough rectangular hall-church, with elegant wood panelling inside But the Victorians were not satisfied with that. They extended the chapel by one additional bay and then rebuilt much of the end wall a few feet to the east. The purpose of this was not to change the outside so much as to incorporate four enormous columns of marble to mark where the extension begins, thereby creating a kind of chancel. Vast expense, conspicuous ostentation, and not at all in keeping with the restrained classicism of the original building. Why did the architect (Sir G G Scott Junior) do it? It’s as if he was saying, I can change any building I like, right or wrong.  

Pevsner likes the quality of the carving on the west front of the chapel, but to be honest, it’s so high up on the street front that most people walking past will never notice if it’s good or not.
Most of the architectural history of Pembroke, like the other older colleges, is the switch from gothic to classical. It’s a bit like a parlour game, trying to spot a little bit of classicism, then pointing out inconsistencies, as in the case of “Hitcham’s Cloister”, a bit of infill joining the original quad with Wren’s chapel, which is classical inside, but which remains gothic on the outside. Nobody is going to notice this inconsistency, except Pevsner.

What all visitors will notice is the amazing clock tower on the library, by Waterhouse, which Pevsner wonderfully describes as “municipal”, imposing a feeling on all the surrounding space that this is a public square. Intimate it is not. The clock is big enough for the whole of Cambridge, not just for one small college.

The other part that I liked was that for once, the modern buildings did not impose themselves on the rest of the college; nor were they apologetic. This is Foundress Court, by Eric Parry, 1995-97. It’s a lovely understated half quad (just two sides) of student accommodation, that simply displays to good effect the lovely white stone of which it is build, with a simple but effective asymmetrical pattern of windows and recesses.

The other thing you notice is the lovely gardening. The stark lawns of the quads are contrasted by a couple of lavish herbaceous borders, and most impressive of all, some completely over-the-top planting to try to compete with some completely over-the-top Victorian building by Waterhouse (Pevsner calls it “fiercely assertive”, and you need something like a banana palm to complete with it).

The feature of Pembroke that is perhaps most noticeable to passers-by is a completely unrelated bit of connecting wall in Pembroke Street, an entrance screen that is not used as an entrance (doesn’t look as though it was ever used thus, and so has a minimal relationship with the rest of the college) but which is astonishingly eye-catching. It is, like so many of the features in Oxbridge that catch your eye, Victorian – actually just beyond Victorian, 1907 by W D Caröe. It’s a great gateway to nothing, but lovely to walk past. 

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