Architects Inspirations

Biba Dow and Alun Jones, ‘Architects Inspirations’, in: Building Design (London: September 2009)


St John’s College
Powell & Moya
Completed 1967
Location Cambridge


Alun Jones

I first got to know the Cripps building in 1990 when I came up to Cambridge to study for my diploma. Although I was not at St John’s I had seen this building from the river and came back to have a closer look.

You approach it through an enfilade of urban rooms that form the first three courts of the college, cross the river by the Bridge of Sighs, and then turn through New Court, a slightly sterile 19th century gothic heap. Passing through a narrow passage in the centre of New Court you burst out into a garden space and there’s the Powell & Moya building, gleaming white and modern, basking in the sun. The juxtaposition is really extraordinary.

Site Plan

Credit: St John’s College Library

Powell & Moya’s site plan for the Cripps Building.

At the time, not a lot of people at Cambridge were interested in modernism, and I am sure a lot of my contemporaries would have seen this building as a bit of sub-Corb modernism, but it’s anything but that. When you take the time to look beyond the style you realise that there is so much depth to this building. I remember at the time thinking it was a really interesting building but the quality and subtlety of the building is more apparent to me now than it was then. Over the last 15 years I’ve brought a lot of students here. I think it is a really good lesson in form and space making. It is also a lesson in looking beyond what something looks like and into that which it really is — after all, it isn’t fashionable to like 1960s English modernism.

Credit: Ed Tyler

The once-popular roof terrace is now out of bounds for students.

The thing I find most interesting is the plan configuration. The building is very long and narrow, and snakes through the college grounds, creating a number of spaces between itself and the existing college buildings. The way it engages with the site and makes sense of all the disparate organisation of buildings around it is brilliant. It forms several courtyards with these buildings, negotiating an inlet of the Cam, the back of New Court and the School of Pythagoras, making a sequence of four courtyards even though it’s not itself a courtyard building.

Most modernist buildings were very much object buildings and about being seen in isolation. But this has an inherent modesty about it and is quite recessive — the spaces it creates between itself and the other buildings are more important than the building itself. It’s very generous.

Credit: Ed Tyler

Rooms have sliding partitions.

When you look at the building more closely, it’s clear that Powell & Moya was dealing with what a cloister typology is, what Oxbridge colleges are, and how these analogous elements could be reworked on this site. The building has quite an emphatic horizontality which is broken up by the staircases and their penetration through the roof plane, where they form stone and glass pavilions on the roof. These staircases are completely open at ground-floor level but as you climb them you end up inside the glazed rooftop pavilion, but you’re never quite inside the building. It is a curious inside-outside experience. When I first knew the building, the roof would be covered with students revising, drinking beer, playing chess, having parties, it was like a village. Unfortunately the roof is now shut to students.

Credit: Ed Tyler

Bronze door detail.

There’s a lot of subtlety with how the building meets the ground — this varies as you travel around the building. Near the river, for example, the Portland stone used at ground-floor level is very shelly and aqueous and the building is more solid. As you move away from the river the building becomes more open at ground floor and the landscape flows through the cloister. Similarly, the staircases, which are made of pre-cast concrete hanging on iron rods, change as you move away from the river, which I’ve always thought this was a response to the different typography of the site.

The colleges are such fantastic patrons because they are very ambitious. Sometimes, like with the Cripps Building at St John’s, they get it right.

Biba Dow

I first got to know the Cripps Building when I was an architecture student at Cambridge, visiting my cousin who lived in the building for two years.

I do really like it. It’s a quiet, confident building — quite mute, yet quite rich. As a student, it’s probably not the sort of building that’ll really rock your boat but I think you appreciate its subtleties as you learn more about making buildings.

It’s on a beautiful site where the formality of the principal college buildings on the east side of the river gives way to the open space of the Backs on the west bank. The Cripps building combines the formality of the reinterpreted college cloister with the informality of the backs of buildings found along the river.

As a student at Cambridge, I was interested as much in the backs of buildings and hidden routes as in the more formal frontages — there are so many garden walls, paths, greenhouses and river doorways which are very much about the place and about buildings in a simple way.

Credit: Edward Leigh

Aerial image shortly after the building was completed.

The stairways dropping down into the Cripps cloister, taking you up to the student rooms, seem to me to have the informality and light touch of the steps found all along the riverbank where buildings back onto the river.

Credit: Ed Tyler

Some staircases are entirely open at ground floor level.

I know Jacko Moya had a great interest in detailing and was closely involved in this project. I worked at Powell & Moya before starting our practice and I remember his full-size details of the ironmongery for Cripps.

There are various window and door catches and latches, cupboard door knobs and hooks in the bedrooms, as well as one-off items like the beautiful opening panel with a bronze latch in the porter’s lodge window. This was all designed specially for the building and one of the delights when we visited it last month was seeing and using it.

Credit: St John’s College

Powell & Moya sketch of the cloister facing Pythagoras Court.

The building uses few materials — Portland stone, pre-cast concrete, lead cladding and glass externally; and internally, hardwood and bronze with plastered walls and ceilings. This limited palette makes you very aware of place and the relationship between the building and the site.

As a practice, Dow Jones is interested in this idea of a more limited, restrained palette, which is worked in different ways. At Poplar Cottage in Walberswick, we only used clay and oak for the whole project, finding lots of different ways with only two materials. At Lant Street in Bermondsey we built a glass and oak roofscape of interconnecting garden spaces on top of an old Victorian factory. At the time we thought of it as being like Robert Smythson’s sweetmeat pavilions at Longleat, but coming here now, we see a more contemporary, or even subliminal analogy with the Cripps Building.

Credit: Edward Leigh

View from the roof terrace in the 1960s.

We’ve been involved in a number of projects that are contemporary interventions in historic buildings such as the Museum of Garden History and our project for Christ Church Spitalfields. In these situations, the threshold between old and new, and finding appropriate analogues to work with, seem to us to be the key. Powell & Moya did that very successfully here, and have made an utterly contemporary building that is embedded in the culture of the college.

Alun Jones and Biba Dow were speaking to Pamela Buxton.

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