RESIDENTIAL BUILDING, GIRTON COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGECategory: Architecture + Painting
In 1869 the University of Cambridge broke with tradition by admitting undergraduates who were unattached to a college, placing them under the control of a censor. In the same year a handful of girls in a hostel at Hitchin benefited from this new regulation and formed the nucleus of what was to become Girtin College. Alfred Waterhouse’s first building was completed in 1873 on a site, as the founders had demanded, “near Cambridge but not in or close to Cambridge”. This too broke with tradition, in that it had rooms off corridors and not off staircases as was customary at Cambridge.
In 1969, an appeal which coincided with the centenary of the college was launched for a new building on a site which this time would be really close to Cambridge. Girton had always rented a place in the centre of the town where girls could have lunch between lectures. The new building would replace this expensive amenity; away from the Waterhouse pile, it could provide an alternative life-style. Above all it would provide accommodation for another 100 girls and space for expansion to double this number.
Despite its two courtyards, Waterhouse’s Girton looks outwards to the fields. Its character is more like that of a country house than a university college. David Roberts and Geoffrey Clarke’s new Wolf- son Court looks inwards and is planned around five courtyards which will double in number when the building is extended. The enclosure is complete, and the building deliberately turns its back on the surroundings that are vulnerable to development. Intercourse between the old building and the new occurs mainly at lunchtime when an average of 160 meals are served daily on weekdays. College fellows, moreover, have been excluded from Wolfson Court (there is only one fellow’s set), so that girls have to go to Girton for their tutorials. A private bus service at peak hours encourages movement between the two places.
One of the problems of collegiate or courtyard planning today is that of identity. The old colleges expanded slowly and each court acquired its own character by being built at different times and in different styles. By the end there were three or at most four courts. An established hierarchy of volumes — gatehouse, chapel and hall usually stood out helped to reinforce this sence of identity in at least two of the courts. At Wolfson a single firm of architects designed five courts at one stroke. There is no gatehouse and no chapel. Only the dining room, common room block, the smallest courtyard near the entrance and the hub of the scheme attempts any formality. Here appropriately is the social centre of the new college through which everyone, must pass before filtering to their bed-sitters in the side-wings. Thus the plan is really two parallel three-storey blocks linked by single-storey buildings which act like cloisters and produce an irregular and varied arrangement of courtyards; there is none of that sameness wThich one finds, say, in the courts of Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners’ Churchhill College nearby, courts which are surrounded by residential accommodation only.
The more one examines the plan of Wolfson Court the less collegiate, in the traditional sense it appears to be. The Oxford and Cambridge college was never entirely inward looking. It turned itsback on the street but opened towards the gardens behind. Wolfson takes account both of its suburban site and of the need for security insisted on by the clients and the architects as a result of some unusually violent incidents which had occurred in Cambridge at the time of the brief. Its “perimeter defences’ as the architects put it, are
formidable. Circulation, which as has already been noted, doubles happily with social space in the central areas, becomes strictly functional at the perimeter. The “cloister” feeds into the side wings - at the three points where staircases rise to serve groups of bed-sit- : ters, which are reached, like the rooms in Waterhouse’s first building at Girton via corridors. All bed-sitters face inwardly and the external face presents only the uninspiring fenestration of corridors and service blocks. In the old colleges some of the sets could face ‘ outwards because staircase access was .the norm. David Roberts and J Geoffrey Clarke have in the past provided some interesting varia- tions of this norm, especially at Magdalen and Jesus. But at Wolfson the nature of the site forced them into a type of access which accord- : ing to Jeremy Taylor’s findings (Student Residential Buildings of David Roberts and Geoffrey Clarke, 1967) is the least satisfactory for social contact.
The forbidding appearance of these “perimeter defences” does not in any way reflect the spirit, in which Wolfson Court is run. The atmosphere is relaxed and discipline is minimal. A warden < together with a students’ committee administers the place. There is no night porter and every girl has her own key. But it is precisely in this informality that some of the problems lie. In the old colleges the undergraduates even now are forbidden to walk across, let alone picnic on, the lawns of the courts. These open places are used for circulating not gathering. At Wolfson the combination of rooms facing courts and courts used as outdoor sitting rooms produces a level of noise, courts being reverberant spaces, and a loss of privacy, which are not always acceptable (though shutters sliding over windows provide a palliative). Turning once again to the findings of Jeremy Taylor (op/cit.), the worst fault of design at Gladestone Hall in Liverpool, was the noise from music, television and games rooms echoing through the court.
In other respects, too, Wolfson Court differs from the old colleges. The size of the courts is comparable, but the height of the buildings is much lower. The relaxed quality of the plan and the domestic scale are a deliberate move away from the monumentality pursued by certain contemporary architects, including Geoffrey Roberts and David Clarke. After a period during which they felt they had a statement to make (the formal quality of St Hugh’s and the obsessive geometry of Jesus for example) they are now prepared to be i less dogmatic and to accept an older domestic tradition which, Roberts says, was upset by Gibbs with his monumental building , for King’s. The result is a degree of domesticity which is rarely found in the medieval colleges but which approaches certain modern Scandinavian exemplars. For Roberts the greatest compliment was the remark of a resident who said that she would like her house to be designed in the same manner.
Related to the problem of scale is the problem of space standards. Noone today wants great formal chapels or dining halls; on the other hand everyone would like, but cannot have spacious private rooms with high ceilings. The bed-sitters at Wolfson although not financed by UGC are roughly to UGC standards at 118 sq. ft. (10.96 m2) gross for undergraduates and 149 sq. ft. (13. 84 m2) gross for graduates. The ceiling height is 7ft. 6in. (2.2 m) and it is not surprising that girls in their second or third year (Wolfson does not take the first year), who have got used to the much more generous spaces at Girton, do not always want to move just to be nearer the bright lights of Cambridge. Two factors, howerer, alleviate these cramped conditions. First, the square shape of the net area left over after subtracting the screened space for the clothes cupboard and basin makes it possible to rearrange some of the loose furniture; and, second, the provision of pantries with properly equipped kitchen and dining areas, a most popular amenity, enables girls to entertain privately and to develop their culinary talents.
The problem of amenities brings up one final and fundamental question. In the context of an institution they are an expensive commodity; in the context of housing their cost is irrelevant. Can the move from the hostel at Hitchin to an institution at Girton be considered in retrospect a regressive move? Should Wolfson Court have been merely housing shared by students of Girton now, but available for ordinary housing in the future? Should Scandinavia exemplars have been emulated not only for their stylistic merits but for their sense of social realism? Crease whose own work in the rehabilitation of old houses for the University of York is well-known, has suggested (Architectural Review, April, 1970) that in seeking a special building form for student housing we are perhaps on the wrong path. We might well find such forms emerging, for universities as well as elsewhere, simply by studying more carefully the corporate needs of small communities generally, and the individual needs of all who are young, poor and mobile. At Cambridge the collegiate system is rooted in tradition. Some of the postwar work notably Ralph Erskine’s Clare Hall, has gone a long way towards making the system more flexible. Wolfson Court takes another welcome step in the same direction.
(From Criticism by Sherban Cantacuzino: The Architectural Review, July, 1974)