Cambridge composure

Cambridge composure – student housing project for Trinity College, Cambridge

Peter Buchanan

This student housing for Trinity College in Cambridge explores geometry and contrast to create a richly complex, yet humanly responsive setting for study.

Burrell’s Field is the second student housing complex built for Trinity College, Cambridge, by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, and the latest in their series of Oxbridge collegiate buildings. All are characterised by a concern with generative geometries (reflecting Richard MacCormac’s fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright and the 1960s researches of Cambridge’s Martin Centre), and latterly with historical precedent too.

Although only completed in late 1995, the Burrell’s Field commission was won in invited competition n 1988. Hence the design is contemporaneous with MJP’s extension to St John’s, Oxford (AR October 1994), to which it offers an instruct:re contrast St John’s continues the typical Oxbridge courtyard form and draws obvious inspiration flora John Soane. Burrell’s Field, though consists of tower-like pavilions along a promenade and draws its primary inspiration from such non-English sources as Frank Lloyd Wright and Schinkel. But then, unlike St John’s which is adjacent to older college buildings (or the earlier Trinity scheme, Blue Boar Court, buried in an urban block in the old town centre), Burrell’s Field is secluded in what is still almost leafy suburbia: it is across the Cam, beyond the Fellow’s Garden and close to the main University Library.

The roughly triangular site is diagonally across Grange Road from Robinson College and is edged on one side by Bin Brook. On it a ready were large Edwardian houses converted into student housing and a pair of under-par 1970s student residences by David Roberts. The design challenge was not just to provide 80 new student rooms with ancillary accommodation, but also to bring all the previously poorly related elements into relationship with each other as well as with the new. An ingenious play of cross-axes, local symmetries and subtle asymmetries, all enlivened by 45 degree rotations (a theme already present in the Roberts hostels and one of the old houses), now tightly interlocks these with each other and the setting.

The main area available for new construction was a narrow strip between the brook’s flood plain and the existing buildings. This is now a terrace at an intermediary level between the flood plain and the rest of the site. The terrace is edged by brick retaining walls from which rise the residential towers that are ranged on either side of a promenade that extends parallel to the brook. Also flanking the promenade are double-storied Inks (each containing a fellow’s flat below more student rooms) between two pairs of towers and a pair of single storied elements. Each of these latter houses a communal space and axially abuts the base one of the Roberts hostels. They thus both screen the hostels from the promenade and lock them into the larger composition as part of a series of cross-axially arranged incidents that animate the length of the promenade while tying together new and existing elements.

Two cross-axial groupings are especially potent. One is formed by the existing Butler House, together with the new common room that abuts it, and the pond that bulges into the meadow from the base of steps across the promenade, along with the pairs of linked towers that overlook the meadow on either side of the pond. The other is formed by a cluster of towers that turn the north-eastern end of the promenade through 90 degrees to terminate in twin towers forming a gate before a pedestrian bridge across Bin Brook. (This main entrance to the site is from a path through the Fellow’s Garden to Trinity’s main buildings. Off Grange Road is the other entrance, where there is some parking and the porter’s lodge). A less dominant cross-axis is formed by the formal garden that links an old house to a balcony bulging over the meadow.

The 12 towers have two or three typical floors, each with a pair of study-bedrooms sharing a kitchen. The lowest of these floors is half a level up from the promenade and entrance into the common stair, and capping each tower is a belvedere study-bedroom This connects by a smaller stair to a study-bedroom on the floor below, creating a two person flat or a particularly luxurious single person one Each study-bedroom and kitchen has a triangular bay window. Together these project from the brick corners of the towers to give the impression of a glass square interlocked at 45 degrees with the masonry one. This Froebel-type geometric play reflects the influence of Wright, as do the horizontal runs of glazing in the linking elements and the way the retaining walls extend out to interlock building and landscape. The communal rooms are especially Wrightian. But the pergolas above the retaining walls were inspired by Schinkel etchings of the Charlottenhof, and again interweave architecture and nature.

Although the architectural vocabulary, like its inspiration, is foreign to Cambridge, the ensemble already seems so at home that it might always have been there – not least because new and existing elements are interlinked into such a coherent and richly articulated unity. And although every bit as rich in architectural experiences as St John’s, especially with the bonus of the interplay between building and nature, the design is less overheated and has an ease missing at Oxford. Moreover, the building is so substantial in its low maintenance materials (brick, sandblasted concrete, lead roofs and stainless steel windows and cills wrapped in lead) and their immaculate construction that it feels certain to always remain there.

At every level the design is enriched by deliberately contrived contrasts. The rooms contrast the introversion of the sleeping areas with the extroversion of the bay windows. In turn, most of these offer contrasting views into the scheme, revealing its geometric consistencies and logic, and outwards to verdant nature. Walking around, vistas alternate between narrow, closed ones and broad, open ones. Some spots reveal the organising power of the axial groupings, while from most others the massing is pleasantly picturesque. Both these aspects are apparent from the entrance bridge (the too-trendily contrived design of which strikes about the only false note). From here, the immaculately composed and crafted ensemble resembles a walled town rising from the flood plain, the emphatic separation of building and meadow wedding these into a whole of complementary contrasts that will be softened but remain no less compelling when vines festoon the pergolas. And the static, heavily earthbound stretches of almost monolithic buff brick capped by beige concrete forms yet another complementary contrast with the more dynamic arrangement of the windows, especially the broad cills and gutters that slice out at the sky.


MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, London

Project team

Richard MacCormac, Peter Jamieson, Michael Evans, David Bonta, Stephen Coomber, Gordon Fleming, Toby Johnson, Paul Mulligan, Oliver Smith, Edward Taylor, Reiner Langheit, Peter Hull

Structural engineer

Harris & Sutherland

Services engineer

University of Cambridge Estate Management and Building Service

Quantity surveyor

David Langdon & Everest

Landscape consultant

Cambridge Landscape Architects


Peter Durant

COPYRIGHT 1997 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group