Sunday, 27 November 2016

How to look at Cambridge architecture

Cambridge Architecture, by Nicholas Ray, 1994

Nicholas Ray makes some interesting and perceptive observations, but before you get started in this book with any individual buildings, you find yourself in a theoretical debate with the author. Mr Ray states: 
This book is designed so it can be read in preparation for a visit to Cambridge, as an introduction to the buildings of the University and colleges. But it is also intended to contribute to an understanding of architecture more generally.
This sounds good – an introduction to architectural history via a tour of Cambridge architecture. But the author’s true colours are revealed as early as page two. Under the heading “ways of seeing”, he tells us “there are many different ways of seeing Cambridge” - I can’t deny that. He states there are three, but I counted five, which I have numbered for convenience:

1.        “It is possible to appreciate the buildings as compositions of mass and line”
2.        “Another level of our understanding ... can be reached ... by understanding where these materials come from and how they were put together.”
3.        “We may admire the compositional skill of the architect.”

Notice that the first three of these are phrased as ways of admiring buildings - although in practice we may not choose to admire the buildings, but to complain about them. He then adds a further two:

4.        How much did the condition of patronage determine what it was possible to build?
5.        How does the building reflect ... the social conditions within which it was conceived?

 And these five ways of seeing may not be the only five. I would suggest three others, and I’m sure we could all add more:
  1.  Some buildings, but especially many in Oxford and Cambridge, were designed partly for show. They are buildings to show off the capabilities of the architect, the craftsman, and the builder. And sometimes the desire to show off has exceeded the attempt to provide pleasure or delight for the users.
  2. Most of the buildings exist in a historical context. Nobody could build a church without some reference to existing churches. Buildings at Oxford and Cambridge universities were built with reference to a tradition of what a university building should look like and how it should function. For example, it was traditional for older colleges to have a chapel and a dining hall. More recent colleges have a dining hall, but not necessarily a chapel (Murray Edwards College, for example, has no chapel). How do the buildings in Cambridge reflect this very specific requirement to relate to the college tradition?
  3. Finally, like most buildings, the University buildings have been modified over time by later architects in light of changed priorities and (presumably) by the experience of users trying to make some sense of the buildings as delivered. This aspect is typically ignored or only mentioned in passing. The changes might remove the original intentions, but then again they might improve the building aesthetically or for the users – or even both.

What is distinctive about Cambridge architecture? He has an answer for this as well. “Buildings for the colleges in Cambridge are specially pertinent ... because ... the way in which they are inhabited has changed so little over the centuries.” Hence, for the author, “the brief for a new college, such as Churchill or Robinson has not altered fundamentally since the middle ages.”

Is this true? If it has not changed, that may simply be the habit Oxford and Cambridge have of retaining outmoded practices that are no longer relevant, partly because of their unusual administrative structure that makes change less likely, and partly because most of the users (notably the undergraduates, but also many of the postgraduates) cannot complain in the way that most building purchasers can: you can decide not to buy a house; you can decide not to stay in a hotel; but you have little or no choice about your accommodation as an student. 

Here are a few examples of how college life has changed over the life of the University:
  1. College chapels are today no longer required. Even the names of the college imply a Christian tradition that is not relevant for many of the students and fellows.
  2. College dining is no longer relevant for the majority of academics. Since they typically have families, they will live outside the college and certainly not go to college dinners.
  3. Perhaps the idea of the single student in a single room is outmoded. There are plenty of examples of students living in separate bedrooms with shared catering and living spaces for each group.
In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for colleges to try to create a new paradigm for student living that is more appropriate to the 21st century. Don't ask me what these might be - that's for the architect, or the students, or both, to tell us.