Court Case

6a Architects’ Cowan Court reinterprets the form and fabric of Churchill College, Cambridge, finds Roz Barr

Buildings.

Words
Roz Barr

Photos
Johan Dehlin, David Grandorge

Cowan Court, designed by 6a Architects, is a 68-room hall of residence and the latest addition to the brutalist brick and concrete setting of Churchill College, Cambridge.

The college was built in the 1960s following a competition between some of the most prominent architects of that era including Chamberlin Powell & Bon, the Smithsons, Ernö Goldfinger, Denys Lasdun, and Stirling & Gowan. Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners’ winning scheme reimagined the traditional courtyard model on a vast scale. Rather than idealising the classical cloister, they instead set out to simplify the attributes of the courtyard type into a pure form, to reduce it to its essence. There is an echo of this in the approach taken by 6a.

Aerial view of the existing college

The architects did not try to change the courtyard typology established by Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners’ plan, which set a series of buildings enclosing courts into playing fields and a beautiful landscape. The building wraps around a square quad but each of its outer walls has a concave face, lending an idiosyncratic character.

Timber cladding responds to a memory of the board-marked concrete of the 1960s buildings. The result is an ordering within the landscape of a three-storey block, similar in scale to the existing structures, but offering more of a contribution to the landscape than the brutalist brick forms.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

There is much embedded memory in this project, as well as craftsmanship – if by craft we mean an understanding of making and not (as some appear to think) a return to the world of decorative medieval artistry through the superfluous addition of detail.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

The glulam timber frame was carefully made by German contractors and there is a single column of steel within the entire framework that ties it together and is buried within the wood, its presence known only to its makers.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

The timber boarding was conceived at competition stage as an homage to the college’s concrete. At first, a much lighter wood was envisaged, but during research for another project 6a came across the salvaged floor planks from a French goods train, and it is these that now offer a beautiful cloak to the glulam structure.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

There is a real joy in how this building has been executed. These engrained boards offered a strong synergy and harmony when nailed so beautifully to the pristine, crafted German timber frame. The rhythm of the shuttering is carefully applied; you can tell that the contractors enjoyed applying the panels, which have the detailing of a finely stitched suit. Just as the symmetry of the existing brutalist buildings abstracts and ‘corrects’ the conventional features of a Cambridge college, 6a’s application of the material abstracts the typical into something quite extraordinary.

6a sold the idea to Churchill’s dons on the basis that it would be an innovative approach in this context, and unique to the college. Architects know how difficult it can be to get clients to buy into a vision, but here the prospect of a ‘first’ was all it took.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

The use of materials did not pose a major challenge at planning, but the proposed height of the building did. The architects initially envisaged a monopitch roof that would have hidden the solar panels and extract ducts, and given the building more gravitas within its setting, says 6a partner Tom Emerson, but that idea was stamped on by a conservation officer.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

Visitors who are unaware of what the building is ‘missing’ can still enjoy the ‘frieze’ around the top storey, which breaks the verticality of the elevations and will weather and change at a different pace to other parts of the facades. It is a simple gesture that alludes to the city’s medieval architecture. The pattern resembles the rough shuttered concrete at the entrance to Churchill College – another nod to the existing campus that has been woven into the new design – and creates an emblem that now appears on entrance gates into Cowan Court.

Timber model by 6a Architects

The Japanese joinery of the timber columns is another detail that refers to the cast concrete structure of the existing buildings, and again reinforces this synergy and understanding of the context.

Ph: David Grandorge

The facades appear flat when approached straight on, although one can see that the windows step and shift at each corner. As one gets closer, however, one realises that the elevations are stepped in section and concave in plan. It seems almost that the timber box is taking a sharp intake of breath – permanently. At each floor level, a sharp aluminium blade acts as a closer piece to the end-grain of the 30mm-thick boards, and also gives an added sharpness to the jettying of the facade. It is a clever play on how a weathering detail can give depth, shadow, and a bit of sparkle to the elevation.

The Japanese joinery of the timber columns is another detail that refers to the cast concrete structure of the existing buildings, and again reinforces this synergy and understanding of the context.

Ph: Johan Dehlin

Walking through the entrance into the courtyard, one arrives in an enclosed, outdoor room. Laid out in the centre is a dense thicket of silver birches, inspired by a visit by the architects to Anglesey Abbey. The internal elevations mimic the exterior, without the jettying. The concrete plinth on which the building sits on is cleverly expressed as a plank floor to the external cloister that wraps around the edge (another nod to the 1960s design). Majestic aluminium rainwater downpipes, whose directness recalls the Smithsons’ work, are celebrated with a central position on each elevation.

Internally, circulation corridors sit above the cloister on the upper floors, and relate to this central court, while the bedrooms all have views to the landscape, cricket pitch or tennis courts. This reverses the plans of the existing college accommodation, which relates the rooms to the courtyards and public spaces to the landscape.

A cast concrete stair core breaks with the timber palette, and offers a calm order that harmonises with the warmth of the wood. This no-nonsense space works very well, softened by inset linoleum to the treads and a delicately robust steel handrail, whose shiny finish lends elegance where brushed stainless steel would be merely ordinary.

Ph: David Grandorge

If 6a experienced disappointments during the process of making, the fit-out of the rooms is possibly the greatest loss. Furniture and fittings designed and detailed by the architect was substituted at the last moment for a lesser design. However, all the rooms are very well proportioned, with a great timber window seat and a neat ventilation panel within the casement.

Service risers are accessed from the main corridor, which is glazed to the courtyard, with a timber sill. One fondly imagines really good parties, where the students can flirt in this generous corridor, hanging out of the windows to chat with the smokers in the courtyard…

A cast concrete stair core breaks with the timber palette, and offers a calm order that harmonises with the warmth of the wood. This no-nonsense space works very well, softened by inset linoleum to the treads and a delicately robust steel handrail, whose shiny finish lends elegance where brushed stainless steel would be merely ordinary.

The focus of 6a’s response to the past is not a recreation of 1960s brutalism, but a beauty that will transform as this building changes and weathers. We can only look forward to seeing the silver birches climb beyond the facades and wave back at the spires of King’s Chapel. Is its material expression ‘craft’, or just extremely well crafted architecture? I suggest the latter.

Additional Images

Download Drawings

Credits

Architect
6a Architects
Structural engineer
Price & Myers
Environmental/M&E engineer
Max Fordham
Landscape architect
Jonathan Cook Landscape Architects
QS
Gleeds
Project manager
AECOM

Windows
Flexwood
Structure
B&K Structures, Engenuiti
External doors
JP Stone
Glazed fire screens
Advanced Joinery
Bathroom pods
Offsite Solutions
Reclaimed oak
BCA
Metalwork
Aalco, Cobra

2017-05-18T10:32:33+00:00

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