Ouh it’s a treat. A serious and responsible new building – the virtues of Keir Starmer one might say; adjectives that could be synonymous with dull – which is also lavish and surprising, which revels in the things architecture is made of, materials, space, light and craftsmanship. Which is a little strange and intentional. It takes the risk of looking weird and is rewarded with being beautiful.
It’s the new dining room of Homerton College, Cambridge, built by Barnes Building of Suffolk and designed by Feilden Fowles – Fergus Feilden and Edmund Fowles – architects under 40 with several successful works to their credit, notably in historic and sensitive places such as Carlisle Cathedral and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. They have at times seemed to become an unimpeachable safe and careful practice of a kind that this country periodically produces. This building, however, is bold.
Homerton, once dedicated to teacher training, has only been a full Cambridge college since 2010 and now offers all subjects in the university’s tripos. It is literally on the wrong side of the tracks, accessed via a busy road bridge over the railway lines to Cambridge station. Although the college itself stands on pleasant ground, its neighborhood lacks the platforms and willows and venerable architecture for which the city is famous.
These “perceived disadvantages”, says Geoff Ward, recently retired director of Homerton, are in fact “advantages”. It is close to the biomedical campus where companies like AstraZeneca are headquartered, creating the opportunity for collaboration. The college also has the most diverse admission in the entire university. It offers “a Cambridge education without the Cambridge stereotypes,” one student said when explaining its appeal. So its new £10.4 million building must project the confidence of a newly transformed institution and cater to its growing student numbers, while embodying an open, not stuffy spirit.
The college has an older dining hall, which will now be used for receptions and receptions etc., in a budding neo-Gothic style that tries too hard to mimic the interiors of the old colleges. It’s a dark, stuffy place, with the soul of overcooked meat and sauce. He is introverted. The new space, while using the rectangular plan and the wooden vault of a traditional room, is both light and full of light.
Glazed openings run along one side, offering generous views of lush gardens. The opposite side opens to more humble spaces, a waiter and kitchen beyond, and an informal cafe. The sloping roof of an old-fashioned hall is inverted into a large extruded V of a ceiling, which rises on each side to allow for tall bands of glazing. Where once there would have been massive oak beams, engineers Structural workshop imagined here a pale X structure, made from chestnut coppice, with all the finesse that modern technology allows.
The wood is held together by interlocking joints and wooden dowels, without bolts or steel plates, which brings certain advantages in terms of durability. It’s also an example of the kind of unsolicited reflection the building abounds in. The wooden panels of the walls gently undulate to capture light and shadow. The flooring is in gray-green terrazzo tones in a strong pattern of pointed triangles, subtly complementary to the mulberry pink concrete that frames the openings to the garden. Colors and shapes mix quietly.
The openness and consideration of the design extends to the kitchens, which are bright and well organized and visually connected to the surrounding spaces and outdoors. A large glass wall over the cafe faces the gable end of an old university building, so it becomes the backdrop for the interior. Each element, historical or functional, has its dignity.
But what really gives the building a punch is its exterior. Here, the V-shaped ceiling is expressed by an M-shaped gable at each end of a large box entirely covered in green earthenware. The material is marbled and watery, always changing with light and viewing angle, catching shadows and bouncy highlights. Although it is flat, it invites us to contemplate its depths.
On the sides of the building, the earthenware is fashioned in a shallow relief of thin vertical triangular shapes, designed to echo a small copper spire atop the former college dining hall. These triangles extend into tall vertical fins at the top of the elevation, framing the glass panels of the hall’s high-level windows. The whole is placed on a base of satisfactory solidity in this pink concrete, where the students are invited to sit on benches embedded in its deep openings. At the back, it’s something else again, a beautiful brick structure containing the kitchens.
For the sheer pleasure of the materials, the dining room is unbeatable: the interplay of flat and sculpted, matte and shiny, pink and green, the angular earthenware and the rounded shadows formed in the concrete concavities. The way the superstructure stands on its low base, contrasting in almost every way, arguably out of proportion, is borderline awkward, but it’s all the more striking for that. If you wanted to quibble about the architecture, you could say it’s a little precious and unradical, a little self-indulgent in its Cambridge bubble, but you’d have to be in a naughty mood to make much of that.
The design also does something to your perception. The exterior cladding makes the building look more solid and opaque than it is, the vast glazing at the top barely noticeable amidst all the greenish gleaming things, the vertical fins hiding the glass in oblique views. This makes the fragility of the interior surprising. What the TARDIS does with size, the mess hall does with mass: it looks like a big glazed brick on the outside, a balsa wood biplane on the inside, yet these two characters somehow come together to make the same building.
There is, in other words, paradox and inversion. What you see is not what you get. This quality makes the dining room more than an exercise in careful details and well-chosen finishes. It engages your mind and your senses. It makes weight and light more palpable. It invites you to understand it by browsing it. By refusing to stop at a single reading, by letting people guess what it is precisely about, the ambiguity of the architecture inoculates it against both the grandiose and the blandness.
Architecture is asked to carry many loads. It must be sustainable and socially virtuous, accessible and sensitive to historical contexts. Which is normal, because it’s public art, a living environment for people, but in all the concern to do good, what can be neglected is what makes buildings pleasant, and what the skills and arts an architect can bring. .
These could be summed up as doing stuff with stuff, like dialing in the necessary minerals and volumes of a building in such a way that you are moved, provoked and engaged, and experience whatever is happening at inside and around it is reinforced. . The Homerton College Dining Hall does things that are right and proper for the environment and its users. It is also an architectural pleasure.