A student hostel respects both its site and Cambridge tradition while exploring precedents from twentieth-century architecture

Respect for King’s: a student hostel respects both its site and Cambridge tradition while exploring precedents from twentieth-century architecture

Peter Davey

Cambridge students are some of the most privileged in the world. Their crucial years between adolescence and adulthood are spent in some of the most moving buildings in England, surrounded by beautiful gardens and immemorial traditions. (Perhaps one of the reasons why Britain always seems to be looking backwards to a lost Golden Age is that so much of its culture has been influenced by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.)

But not all is what it seems as you stroll down King’s Parade. For instance, Cambridge is one of the world’s great scientific universities (a huge new science and technology park is being completed on the edge of the city). And for a longtime, the colleges have had more members than they were able to accommodate in the old buildings. So various devices have been evolved for dealing with the overflows, a favourite of which has been to build lodgings on meadowland owned by the colleges next to the Cam.

Over the river, King’s College has an absolutely stunning Fellows’ Garden: a great lawn surrounded by herbaceous borders (cultivated to be at their best throughout the year) and fine, well grown trees — the place is clearly the product of a very old and skilful tradition of gardening. As early as the 1950s, the college decided to develop the western fringe of the garden to create living accommodation for students. A decent neo-Georgian hostel by Geddes Hyslop resulted, well built in the postwar austerity period with red brick walls and steel windows. Recently, Nicholas Ray Associates were asked to provide 33 more undergraduate rooms and given a site to the north of the existing hostel. It is a marvellous place, overlooking the garden with views across the lawn through the trees to the spiky skyline of King’s College Chapel, some 400m to the east over the Cam. The ’50s building was cautiously orientated at right angles to the lawn to let the King’s fellows wander over their lawn in privacy, but in a more demo cratic age, the new one is allowed to command the incomparable prospect.

Even at Cambridge, cost restrictions are quite severe, and the planners were insistent that the envelope had to be restricted to preserve existing trees. So the parti’ is fundamentally similar to that of the Hyslop building, with student study bedrooms arranged on each side of a central corridor. The north-east corner of the rectangular plan is eroded to allow for the spread of a fine well-grown beech. In part compensation for the erosion, the building bulges eastwards to the garden.

In the north-east corner, the central corridor terminates in a curve of glass blocks that allows the central axis of this usually dreadfully institutional plan form to be flooded with daylight. At its other end, the corridor is naturally lit too, through glass block walls surrounding the secondary (fire escape) stair. The main stair rises from the entrance hall entered from a porch carved out under the bulging bay on the garden side. Going upstairs, you look out through the great tree and can get glances of King’s Chapel through frameless double glazing. At the top of the stair is a large terrace over the three-storey bulge. It overlooks the garden and the view, and must be a wonderful place for summer parties. Other communal areas are the traditional (at least in modern collegiate buildings) shared kitchens, which on lower floors have views northwest over the gardens. Individual study bedrooms are very different on east and west sides. On the garden front, they have enclosed balconies, a bay window, and the view. To the west, rooms are much more conventional, with cantilevered steel balconies and a vista over the local car park (but beyond that to a bosky suburb).

Writing in Architectural Research Quarterly (arq), Ray says that, from the first, the Garden Hostel has been regarded as a ‘teaching case study’. (2) Clearly, the building has been designed with respect for the site past and present. It has also been thought of in the context of history and theory, so much part of the tradition of the Cambridge school. Ray and his students have been keen to incorporate as many lessons from the past as possible. There are abstracted references to Corbusier — for instance, the two columns that frame the entrance under the eastern bulge are supposed to be references to pilotis — and the curve itself is clearly derived from Aalto.

Each detail carries a story, and each has been carefully thought out. Yet the whole lacks coherence: a problem of one kind of British architecture since Pugin, but perhaps intensified by the modern Cambridge school. (3) The references clash and collide. Aalto would never have striven to emphasize the eastern bulge by cladding it in vertical oak planks — brick is clearly capable of taking the curve, and the Finnish master would surely have used it as an extension of the main masonry mass, instead of making a formal (as opposed to functional) change of material. Even Ruskin, that great apostle of changefulness, could scarcely have welcomed the north-east corner with its transitions from oak, to brick, to render, to High-Tech glazing, to glass blocks. Most of these moves are purely picturesque, so the result must be judged formally. It has a bit of the whiff of a builders’ merchant.

Yet the scale of the place is appropriate. It is an excellent place to live in if you are a student. And, for those lucky enough to have rooms on the east side, the experience must be transforming.

1. In fact the new work is the first phase of a development that will include a new floor on top of the Hyslop building, and a small link that will connect the two. The latter provision is necessitated by an insanity of British law that requires value added tax to be paid on extensions and alterations to existing buildings, while it is not due on new buildings, Hence the new piece had to be considered as an independent entity.

2. Nicholas Ray. who lectures at the University, describes the genesis and rationale of the building in ‘Cambridge Composition’, Architectural Research Quarterly vol VI, no 1, 2002

3. The most dramatic and bizarre instance of the Cambridge preoccupation with Modernist geometrical and formal precedent is Harvey Court by Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson for Gonville and Caius College, just down the road from King’s Garden Hostel, which is based on Saynatsalo. The geometry of Aalto’s tiny distillation of civic life, intended to generate a sense of place and community for a little industrial village in central Finland, was inflated to be a much larger collegiate building in which functions were completely different without, as Ray points out in his arq article, entirely satisfactory results for the students.


Nicholas Ray Associates, Cambridge

Project team

Nicholas Ray, Bobby Open (project architect), Will Armstrong, Chris Bailey, Maria Demargne, Henry Fletcher, Richard Holbrooke, Jorge Moreira, Ingrid Schroder

Structural engineer

Andrew Firebrace Partnership

Services engineer

Max Fordham LLP

Landscape architect

Cambridge Landscape Architects


Peter Cook/VIEW

COPYRIGHT 2002 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group