Cambridge in Concrete

For too long, the post-war contributions to the architecture of Cambridge has been ignored. Often both attention and the camera lens are focused on the built achievements dating from the medieval period when, within living memory, British architects have done so much more for the city.

 

Cripps Building, St John's College, Cambridge. © Henk Snoek / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

 

In 2012 at the University of Cambridge, selected material from the RIBA British Architectural Library  Photographs Collection  went on show to the public to highlight the work of architects in the 1950 and 1960s whose buildings dared to express their construction and utilised concrete, a material that was in contrast to Cambridge’s then existing buildings. Nevertheless, these modern structures respected the scale and form of their surroundings and enabled the city to accommodate the changing needs created by the post-war expansion of the university and growth in higher education. The consideration given to the picturesque landscape of Cambridge and the collaborative spirit of the age are partly reflected in one picture; included in the exhibition was an evocative image of the George Thomson Building, designed by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates, which sits low in landscaped gardens with a sculpture of a seated figure by Henry Moore in the foreground. Made of reinforced concrete, the mass of this building is broken into several blocks and relieved by the extended concrete frame raised on pilotis which offered sheltered circulation spaces, like the old cloisters, for the graduates living there.

Writing in 1970, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was already declaring: “That there are failures among these many buildings goes without saying, but there are also masterpieces among them” (Pevsner p.42). Now, over forty years later, visitors to the city can spot the fruits of a building boom that gave commissions to great architects such as Hugh Casson, Denys Lasdun, Powell & Moya,  Leslie Martin and Basil Spence and added their modern designs – worthy of more attention – to ‘hidden’ Cambridge. 

George Thomson Building (left) and University Library for the Arts Faculties (right), Cambridge. © Henk Snoek and Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection Cripps Building, St John's College, Cambridge. © Henk Snoek / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

 

Reference (available from the British Architectural Library, RIBA)

  • Pevsner, N., Cambridgeshire. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970

 

 

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