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Tuesday29 July 2014

5th Studio’s reworking of the George V Pavilion in Cambridge

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As part of the regeneration of Trumpington in Cambridge, 5th Studio has recrowned the tired George V pavilion with an overhaul and extension to accommodate the whole neighbourhood

With some embarrassment, I now realise that, in the years I spent studying at Cambridge, I never did bother to find out what lay at the other end of the Trumpington Road. The north end — the point where it meets the city — I got to know all too well as that is where the school of architecture stands. Until 5th Studio’s Tom Holbrook drove me there recently, however, I had never made the 4km journey out to the village that gives the road its name.

That said, I am not sure I missed much. While there is still evidence of Trumpington’s medieval origins — Chaucer set his Reeve’s Tale here — the sense of the place maintaining an independent identity was largely obliterated by Cambridge’s 20th-century expansion. Today, it is certainly more suburb than village, its historic core forming a small part of a fabric dominated by wide serpentine roads lined with spartan post-war council housing.

And yet although Trumpington may represent one of Cambridge’s less well-heeled districts, its prospects are looking up. Before taking me to see the project his practice has recently completed at the heart of the community, Holbrook drives us down a narrow gravel path that extends beyond the furthest ring of housing, across a hinterland of scrappy allotments, and finally draws to a halt at the edge of a wide swathe of meadow.

Do you remember the moment in Once Upon a Time in the West when Charles Bronson takes Jason Robards out to see the construction work on the railroad that is advancing inexorably towards Sweetwater and will soon change the town’s fortunes forever? Well, the Cambridge Guided Busway (CGB) may not quite hold the mythic allure of the Union Pacific, but the sight of its construction amid this expanse of virgin farmland packs a certain thrill nonetheless.

The changing room block is an off-the-peg building that has been overclad.

Credit: David Grandorge

The changing room block is an off-the-peg building that has been overclad.

Once completed, this key piece of infrastructure will provide a rapid transit connection into the city centre and ultimately allow Trumpington to undergo a major expansion. Countryside Properties already has planning permission to build 2,300 homes on the land that the CGB is cutting through, a scheme that will also include primary and secondary schools, shops, offices, a library and health facilities.

Five years ago, the local authority asked 5th Studio to help it assess the appropriate range and scope of the community facilities it would demand of this expansion scheme. Through that exercise, it also came to recognise that Trumpington’s existing community facilities were in poor shape and that the cost of their redevelopment couldn’t all be piggybacked on the developer. The wisdom of that view has been born out subsequently by the fact that the economic downturn has put the expansion scheme on ice.

One of the most glaring signs of underinvestment was the George V pavilion, a building erected in the early fifties in memory of the recently departed king. This single-storey structure was built at the entrance to the contemporaneous Foster Road estate to provide a community hall and changing rooms. As originally built it opened on to the playing fields around which the estate is distributed by way of French doors but, after a long campaign of vandalism, these were removed and their openings blocked up, leaving just a single point of access to an unpleasantly dark interior. Football teams were duly required to tramp across the parquet floor of the hall in order to reach their changing rooms. In the end, the facilities fell into such disrepair that players refused to use the pitches.

In 2006, the city council asked 5th Studio to oversee the building’s making good. The initial plan was that it might serve as a youth facility but, following a round of public consultation, it became apparent that the community had broader hopes for its future. At this point the idea emerged that the Trumpington Residents’ Association might ultimately take on the building’s management and so, with this body acting effectively as client, 5th Studio was invited to develop a significantly more ambitious scheme.

The kitchen opens into the hall.

Credit: David Grandorge

The kitchen opens into the hall.

The expanded brief proposed the building might be used not only for sports, but also for coffee mornings, lunch groups, lectures, exhibitions, concerts and parties — activities that would draw in a much wider demographic than was envisaged originally. The potential for conflict between these uses may be ripe but 5th Studio has gone some way to mitigate it by conceiving the project as two structures rather than one. The pavilion has been remodelled and expanded but its use has been restricted to clean, indoor activities. The changing rooms for the teams using the sports grounds have been accommodated in a new block that stands to one side.

The two structures occupy a common paved precinct, correspond in height and also share a highly distinctive cladding treatment that the architect developed in collaboration with the artist (and former architecture student) Mike Tuck. This comprises two layers — a triple cell polycarbonate inner leaf, with a wide-webbed steel grille applied to the outside. The grille serves a security function, protecting the polycarbonate and also extending over every window. However, the effect of the two materials in combination is highly engaging, utterly transforming the appearance of what would otherwise be two very unassuming structures. This is in large part due to Tuck’s ingenious customisation of the polycarbonate. Into each of its three cells he has poured an epoxy paint of a different colour, transforming the walls into fields of tentatively described vertical stripes. The effect is close to white noise, but nudged into a relationship with the encompassing grass by spraying the overlaid grille a zingy green.

Viewed across the playing fields, the ensemble thus presents a fundamentally recessive appearance. By contrast, on the south side — where the principal entrance is — the architect has worked to provide a scale and expression befitting the elevation’s status as the visual terminus of the main road into the estate.

A new kitchen has been grafted on to the pavilion at this end and fitted with a rather ecclesiastic window that projects, sit-up-and-beg style, above the standard parapet height. Positioned directly beside the entrance, it has rather less to do with drawing light in than advertising the building’s presence to its surroundings, but it does this ably, providing evening visitors with a high illuminated beacon that stands out against the otherwise dimly lit playing field.

The community hall looks across the playing fields through full-width glazing.

Credit: David Grandorge

The community hall looks across the playing fields through full-width glazing.

The other major addition on the south side is a freestanding canopy built from galvanised steel sections and corrugated GRC. It could hardly be more economically detailed and yet through several sly refinements — pulling the steel posts away from the corners, orienting the roof so that it presents the verge of a monopitch to the main approach — it has been lent a lot of character. Its scale is significant in this respect, too. You could get quite a group under here; indeed, part of the motivation behind the design was to provide local kids with a place where they could hang out while remaining within sight of the surrounding houses. This represents a very different situation from the days when large groups would be drawn to the privacy of the opposing side of the building with predictably bacchanalian consequences.

Having been extended to both north and south, the pavilion’s floor area has almost doubled, but 5th Studio has drawn old and new into one cohesive expression. The interior certainly offers little indication that a substantial part of its fabric might be more than 50 years old. The hall at the centre of the plan opens on to the playing fields through a wall of full height glazed doors — a relationship so seemingly inevitable it is hard to imagine it was ever otherwise. Like every other window in the building, these too are set behind a steel grille.

However, the building has one final trick in store: the grille running along this elevation has been designed as an enormous retractable security gate. With the push of a button, 8m of steel mesh is sent slowly motoring along the facade until the full expanse of glazing is exposed. When the youth club is in residence, responsibility for this task is apparently hotly contested. It is a moment emblematic of a scheme that balances the demands of accessibility and fortification with considerable invention and a great deal of charm.

Project team

Architect 5th Studio, Client Cambridge City Council, Structural engineer Ramboll Whitbybird, Services engineer WSP, QS Sherrif Tiplady, Contractor SDC

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