Churchill College’s campus is unusual for Cambridge in having an open, outward-looking aspect which is much valued by its users, and contrasts with the more inward aspect of most Cambridge architecture, both ancient and modern. David Thurlow’s Study Centre helps in establishing this open parti, reinforcing development of the perimeter and with long views across the playing fields to the south.
It is a reticent, almost unnoticeable building in a pocket of space between Churchill College and the Møller Centre. From the access road its back parts hide behind shrubs and hedges, and from the south the immensity of the open fields render the calm low building almost invisible. It’s a nice building, friendly, well-mannered and effective.
This project is an opportunity to let it greet the world with more character and assurance. And we have made the Recital Room autonomous while maintaining a meaningful connection between it and the Study Centre.
The Centre is to become a collaborative learning environment, a kind of theatre. It has also put us in mind of a really good kindergarten, but a grown-up kindergarten for clever, highly motivated adults where the distinction between work and play is blurred and the mind becomes super-absorbant like a toddler’s. As in a kindergarten, there is the need for a variety of learning environments, using many different kinds of kit, a range of quick change situations throughout the course of each day enabling the widest possible range of simultaneous or sequential activities, as well as an easy interface between indoors and out, and for food and drink to be good and taken on the run.
We felt the key to success for the learning spaces was that they should be not just flexible, but also varied in their size and spatial characteristics. Added spatial richness and variety is another kind of in-built flexibility. We proposed three L-shaped suites of three rooms each which can be opened and closed to each other at will. Every suite has access to outdoor space, and each individual room can be independently accessed from the continuous ribbon of milling spaces which form the circulation spaces of the building. In each room there are refreshment stations served by an enlarged kitchen, and each suite has plenty of storage as well as a “backstage” alcove for IT, technical and production support. The milling spaces are either skylit or open onto the new courtyard, and they have plenty of space for refreshment and seating areas. Other support facilities include a large new reception and office area at the main entrance, new WCs, storage and plant. The courtyard and the new rooftop promenade provide sitting out spaces, whose use might usefully be extended by built-in patio heaters.
Approaching the study centre along the Møller Centre access road you come first to new pond, with reeds and ducks, backed by a brick wall. This brick wall forms the balustrade of a gently sloping pedestrian approach up to the rooftop recital room. On the other side of this ramped approach is a south-facing grass bank, enclosing and humanising a grassed area which is currently no more than a wide verge – in spite of its tree and sculpture.
At the west end of the pond is the only two-storey part of the Centre, forming what appears to be a nearly detached pavilion. The upper floor of this pavilion is the recital room. Approaching it from the top of the ramp you pass five orange pods, the rehearsal rooms, rising and falling like notes on a stave. They, like the recital room, are acoustically isolated from the ground floor spaces below. The recital room has its own small foyer with counter and WCs, and a direct stair down to the ground floor so that it can potentially be used as an additional Study Centre facility, as can its adjacent roof terrace. The recital room and the pods have no windows overlooking the back gardens to the north: each rehearsal pod shares the open views south across the playing fields.
From the Møller Centre itself, users look down the slope to the west front of the building. This will no longer be a blank façade, but one with a varied profile, with set backs and with windows. The approach itself has been modified. We think the car parking outside the Møller Centre could be usefully rearranged, so that access to the car parking spaces is directly off the access road, and the second parallel road closer to the building disappears. It would be replaced by a broad, smooth pedestrian and service route bounded by a herbaceous border, not for cars, but able to be accessed by the occasional service vehicle. We also suggest softening the landscape around the Study Centre with an informal scheme of grasses and flowers, and with routes conforming more closely to desire lines.
The building is of heavily insulated brick walls, some white-painted, with douglas fir framed high performance windows which will be untreated and will weather silver-grey. The walls, with their many setbacks, bays and oriels, will be heavily clothed in climbing plants, so the west front facing the Møller Centre and the courtyard will have the character of garden architecture, with wall and window subordinated to planting. The roof over the old recital room will be grassed to enhance the foreground of the approach to the new recital room: other roofs will be simple, highly insulated flat roofs which are, in any case, virtually invisible from most views.