Housing in North West Cambridge, designed by Maccreanor Lavington and Witherford Watson Mann
What is a good city? What is proper housing? The response to these questions has always been interconnected, especially in the case of the city of Cambridge, where architects Maccreanor Lavington and Witherford Watson Mann have recently completed a housing project for the university in its new urban extension, North West Cambridge, now known as Eddington.
Northward view of WWM’s building
In the nineteenth century, the university had to redefine itself against the growth of redbrick institutions in cities like London. Cambridge colleges began to change in nature, offering a deliberately pastoral alternative to their rivals. The closed court typology was opened by new buildings in configurations that extended towards surrounding landscapes where lawns and small paths replaced various hard surfacing. The colleges provided a solid aggregate within the matrix of houses, shops and schools that is typical of the English market town, but which here was relatively weak and discontinuous. Cambridge slowly acquired a distinct urban image which is the result of typological and material consistency: the courts of the colleges built in brick and honey-coloured stone facades, and a homogeneous concept of landscape.
Cambridge succeeded in advancing its myth, metamorphosing its compact urbanity into a carefully constructed Arcadia, encoding complex, didactic ideas of how the academic staff and their students should live together. Today, this myth is celebrated in tourist postcards depicting sheep grazing in the meadows in front of King’s College chapel.
In the twenty-first century, Cambridge University has to compete once again – now against universities all over the world which are able to deliver not just academic excellence, but also affordability, convenience and delight to increasingly mobile students and academics. To put it simply: Cambridge had become too expensive a place to live for international PhD candidates who have more options to choose from, and are less sensitive to its prestige. In response, the university took the initiative to build a new 150-hectare housing district to the north-west of the city, with a masterplan designed by a team headed by Aecom. The first phase is now nearly complete and offers housing, schools and shops for key workers, all based on a strict sustainability regime.
ML’s Veteran Oak Gardens and Ridgeway buildings viewed from the north-west
Although never more than three blocks deep, the urban plan seems predicated on a closed perimeter block pattern. The possible urban qualities of this choice are barely sustained by the architecture of the first phase, which seems to generate a variety of objects, rather than to define public spaces that may feel as urban as the plan suggests. The public realm itself is abundant, and appears as self-referential as the buildings. Funding has clearly not been a concern.
North West Cambridge seems to be full of ideas and ambitions, but has not yet decided on a clear urban identity. Is it a sequence of streets and squares, with enclosed gardens, like the early university? Or a picturesque flow of blocks and landscapes, like the university remade in the nineteenth century? As if to compensate for this indecision, the development has been built almost entirely in brick of a uniform pale beige tone.
ML’s Veteran Oak Gardens building viewed from the south-east
Within the first phase, a shallow, tapering site, 100 metres long, has been built to the designs of the architects Maccreanor Lavington (MLA) and Witherford Watson Mann (WMM). It is part of larger block in which a hotel will also be built. Though working collaboratively, the two offices have opted for a differentiated approach which is most evident at the ends of the building, where it rises to five storeys high: MLA designed the north corner, WWM the south one.
In between, on the east side of the block, each has designed part of a three-storey-high terrace containing apartments, which shows minor differences in layout and facade design. The stair and lift lobbies have a dual aspect, connecting them both to a communal back yard with parking spaces and to the street. The brickwork cladding of the facades is quiet and regular.
WWM’s South Building
The ground-floor units of MLA’s five-storey block have their own doors on the street. Access to the upper apartments is provided by external walkways. Structural brick piers, timber ceilings and low window sills lend the walkways the character of galleries.
Flat plans give a dual aspect and allow the position of the front door to switch from the street side at the ground floor to the gallery side on the upper floors. The facades of the lower two storeys are articulated by concrete posts and beams that support the brickwork of the upper three storeys.
WWM’s south block is the most idiosyncratic. Its street facades have repetitious window patterns and conform to the uniformity of the North West Cambridge beige brickwork, but this logic is transgressed by a passage leading from the corner of the block past the lift lobby entrance to the back yard. This recessed space sits at the edge of a future market square. Sculptural planes of glazed red and purple-red brickwork incorporate benches. Four roughly-sawn logs provide another prominent seat.
Glazed brick cutback entrance to WWM’s South Building
Brown steelwork, bronze anodised aluminium and natural concrete are the materials for both the lift lobby and the access decks on the building’s courtyard elevation. The combination of dark colours is intentionally ‘awkward’, recalling some brutalist housing estates of the past and providing a dissonant contrast to the pale beige world of North West Cambridge.
The floor plans of the flats are oriented towards the street, and offer the maximum sense of spaciousness that such small units can acquire.
City-making goes beyond the provision of proper urban design frameworks and design guidelines. Beyond their good taste and incontestable ecological ambitions, the architectural substance of the streets, courts and dwellings will have to stand on their own merits. Elsewhere in Cambridge MLA has contributed to the Accordia estate – arguably among the most important housing experiments of recent decades. The success of Accordia is that housing, landscape and urbanism are viewed as having reciprocal relations and have resulted in a green but self-evidently quasi-urban neighbourhood.
MLA and WMM’s collaborative design contains lessons for the future of North West Cambridge. It strongly suggests that there is value in a smaller grain to the texture of the blocks, in a smaller scale of the commissioning and tendering structure, and in the activation of the streets by the dwellings. Urban tissue goes before object building. At Ryle’s Yard the stark volumes are reinforced by distinctive, idiosyncratic detail. Although the architecture has not progressed from the small scale to the large ‘in one go’, one is left impressed by the consistency of its design development, reminiscent of the modernisation of the Cambridge college in the nineteenth century.
This consistency appears in the handling of the scale of the buildings and their relation to the scale of the public spaces: the five storeys to the garden square at the north and to the market square at the south side in opposition to the three-storey terrace along the cycle path to the west. It also appears in the reinforcement of the perimeter by clearly separating the properties of the street and the back yard. And there is the figurative – even pictorial – character of the different elevations and the generous articulation of the ground floor. Especially in WWM’s south block, it is recognised that city architecture profits from neutrality and harmony, but also needs contrasts and tension. In the minds of Maccreanor Lavington and Witherford Watson Mann, the future of Cambridge is urban.
Witherford Watson Mann (South Building), Maccreannor Lavington (North Building)
Structural and services engineer
URS, Peter Brett Associates, Hoare Lea
Gardiner & Theobald
Grant Associates, TO Studio
Mystique by Leopold Engels, Solar range by NR Taylor, Clamp range by Furness
Cambridge Architectural Precast
Futura+i by Idealcombi