Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Cambridge college that didn’t opt for ostentation


Magdalen College, First Court (largely 16th century)
It is exceptional to discover an Oxford or Cambridge college that is an old foundation but that has not at some point indulged in a craze to display its wealth by building. Today I discovered one: Magdalen College, Cambridge. Of course there are poor colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (Somerville is an example), but as a rule they tend to be the more recent foundations. Magdalen has quite a simple building history, compared to that of most of the older foundations: just one complete quad, and one building (the Pepys Building) that might have formed part of a quad but never quite made it; one side was never built, and the side that was built faces the other way, towards the river.  Magdalen did have space on its original site to extend its building – the Fellows’ Garden is a lovely informal tree-lined walk alongside the River Cam – but, fortunately, never did. The rear side of the Pepys Building is a rather quiet brick range that blends well with the relaxed, almost unkempt style of the garden it faces.

Magdalen College, Fellows' Garden (by the river)

So where to build next? Magdalene College took over many of the buildings on other side of Magdalen Street. Here again, the policy was largely small-scale and unostentatious. Rather than demolishing the higgledy-piggledy set of old buildings they had bought up, the College had them restored, and the result is a marvellous informal collection of buildings. None of the buildings is major in its own right, but the impression overall is of a human-scale neighbourhood – perhaps unique in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, the story on that side of the street isn’t entirely a good one. It’s unfair to single out less than impressive newer buildings alongside an older foundation, but one or two of the 20th-century buildings are very poor. There is a huge block by Edwin Lutyens, Benson Court, 1931-32, which Pevsner praises for its details. The details may be fine, but the overall impression is on overbearing, inharmonious whole. Nice details, perhaps, but lacking any kind of overall statement. If you want proof, simply look towards Powell and Moya’s Cripps Building of 1963-67: bold, stark, but undeniably powerful, and a statement, which Benson Court is not.  Mercifully, the College prevented Lutyens continuing – what he completed was only one-third of his plan.
David Roberts, River Building

Unfortunately, Magdalen College has a building even less successful than Benson Court. It is by David Roberts, the very man who demonstrated such awareness of existing landscapes and interactions between buildings at one end of the site; but in his River Building (1956-57), he manages to build something at the same time ugly, out of touch with its surroundings – not linking to the river any more than it links to the existing buildings on the site - and looking more like retirement flats than student accommodation. It seems such a shame to build something so intrusive when the example of keeping a human-scale collection of buildings is just a few yards away.   

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