Wright & Wright's Cambridge University Corpus Christi College Campus
When Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College ran out of undergraduate library space, it engaged Wright & Wright to remodel a former bank it owns on one of the city’s main streets as the Taylor Library, reports Ellis Woodman. Photos by Peter Cook and Dennis Gilbert
Founded in 1352 — just a couple of years after a third of the population of Europe had succumbed to the Black Death — Corpus Christi is one of Cambridge University’s oldest colleges. It is also one of its smallest, a product of the fact that its city centre site has stubbornly constrained all ambitions towards expansion. In the 20th century, the college established a satellite presence on the far side of the River Cam, but its principal address remains essentially the product of just two phases of development.
Constructed in uncoursed rubble and still boasting an otherworldly disregard for basic plumbing, the 14th century Old Court is indeed the oldest court in the city. Alongside it stands the 1823-27 New Court, designed by William Wilkins. Its footprint isn’t so very much larger than that of the original quad but it is a grander and considerably stiffer proposition.
Representing one of its architect’s rare excursions into gothicism, the scheme draws its detailing from early Tudor sources, but in the doggedly symmetrical composition of its facades, it betrays Wilkins’ fundamentally classical sensibilities. It is through New Court that the college is now entered. The chapel lies on axis with the gate house, while the northern and southern flanking ranges are occupied by the dining hall and library respectively. In fact Wilkins designed two libraries — the Parker Library, which constitutes one of the world’s most important archives of medieval texts, and the less rarefied undergraduate library on the floor below.
By the late nineties, both had outgrown their existing premises. Studies to test the feasibility of an expansion were undertaken separately by 5th Studio and by Colin St John Wilson. Both concluded that the best solution would be to fit a new wing within the garden of the Master’s Lodge. However, the college was resistant to the idea of encroaching on this space, leaving only one option, one that would prove considerably more involved — and expensive — than constructing a new building.
In the mid-19th century, the college had undertaken a commercial development comprising a Wilkins designed terrace of houses and an adjoining gothic bank building by Horace Francis, which enjoy a very prominent urban position. The terrace masks the college’s relationship to Trumpington Street — the road along which most of Cambridge’s oldest colleges are distributed — while the bank turns the corner into Benet Street, where it looks out to another work by Wilkins, the magnificent screen and gate house of King’s College.
In the early 20th century, Corpus reclaimed the houses as student accommodation but Francis’s building remained in commercial use until 2005, when its lease came up for renewal. With this opportunity in sight, the college decided to build a new undergraduate library within the bank. Expected to provide shelf space for 45,000 books, the new facility would offer more than double the college’s book-holding capacity. It would also free up the site of the existing undergraduate library, enabling the Parker to be provided with additional reading rooms and a new secure vault.
While the dividends were clear, the complexity was daunting.
While the dividends were clear, the complexity of what was being proposed was daunting. Not only would the building’s interior have to be comprehensively remodelled, its orientation would also have to be reversed — the entrance to the city would be closed and a new one opened onto what at the time was a small service yard, which the bank had shared with the Wilkins terrace and Old Court.
A 2002 competition for the project was won by Wright & Wright, a practice that had established a strong track record in library design, having completed both the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University and the library at the Royal College of Art. Funded in large part by a donation from John Taylor, a Corpus alumnus who made a fortune by inventing the cordless kettle, the Taylor Library finally opened its doors in February.
Wright & Wright’s scheme involved gutting the existing building, removing the floor of the banking hall at street level, and dropping the basement floor by a metre. Into the shell, the practice introduced a structure to support bookshelves and reading desks.
The new structure reads as a building within a building, and is held apart from the original walls by a full height-void. This move has enabled the new floor plates to be positioned freely — there are now three where there were previously two — without crashing into the inherited window openings. It also allows the intervention to follow an orthogonal plan without becoming embroiled in the site’s wayward boundary line.
The choice of materials also proves a significant distinguishing factor. Where the internal faces of the original walls are plastered, the bookshelves and reading desks of the new fabric are meticulously detailed in oak-veneered joinery. That same material is used for the balustrades and as a lining for the steel structure, with the effect that the whole takes on a decidedly monumental presence. For all the lightness of its construction, the new work feels every bit as substantial as the old.
Alongside the banking hall, Francis’ building incorporated a house for the bank manager, which has also been transformed to provide a media studies centre at basement level and a designated law library above. The range of study spaces provided is therefore really quite extensive, particularly when one compares the project with a traditional, single-volume collegiate library such as the Parker or Wren’s wonderful library for Trinity. The more domestic arrangement established here cannot compete with the grandeur of those examples, but one suspects it represents a model that many contemporary undergraduates would prefer.
Book shelves and reading desks are meticulously detailed in oak-veneered joinery.
Given the nature of the new use, the fact that the building presents a run of large windows to a busily trafficked junction was a potential problem. However, the introduction of new glazing resolved the sound issues, while the void around the plan’s perimeter deftly ensures that students can work without being observed by passers-by.
Initially, the architect envisaged the introduction of an additional window. This would have been located at the building’s corner, taking the place of the now redundant front door. Instead, the college has decided to install a clock within the door surround, requiring the introduction of a blank panel to transform the opening into an aedicule. I have not seen any design for the proposed clock but it will have to be good if it is going to compensate for the loss of the fantastic view from the library back to the entrance of King’s College.
The narrow yard via which the building is now accessed was conceived as a service space and offers neither the scale or formality of the college’s two courts. In plan, it forms a parallelogram, which narrows towards the library at its north end. The practice’s work also included an extensive remodelling of the other buildings on the yard to provide office space, washrooms, fellows’ sets, and a basement-level junior common room. While modest in architectural scope, these changes have proved crucial in elevating the yard’s status within the network of college spaces. With this ambition in mind, the idea of completely refacing the back of the Wilkins terrace in stone was also mooted, but English Heritage preferred to see it retain its existing character. The only significant adjustment that has been made, therefore, is the introduction of a series of stone door surrounds, which subtly aggrandise the openings conceived by Wilkins as back doors, but which now serve as the front entrances.
The library registers in this rag-bag setting by way of an L-shaped extension that wraps around the yard’s north end. It accommodates the sequence of entrance spaces and, just as crucially, allows the building to advertise the public role it now plays in college life. That function is signalled by the choice of material — stone — and by the presence of a double-height window that commands the principal elevation.
Approaching it, we discover that a deep recess has been cut into the adjacent facade — a low, wide space lined in stone with a beautiful oak soffit above and an oak door at the back. Passing through, we enter a compact reception area before pinballing back to the library.
Presented with the full-height void that extends up the back of the tall window, we are granted both a sense of spatial release and an immediate understanding of the scope of the room that we have entered. While expectations of “accessibility” are increasingly interpreted as reason to make the entrances to our public buildings as negligible as possible, Wright & Wright has set itself in clear opposition to that tendency.
Wright & Wright has sensitively extended six centuries of architectural development.
Rather than being faced with the ubiquitous sliding glass door in an all-glass facade, we find the practice has sought to attenuate the space between the library and the outside world as far as it possibly can. It offers an infinitely richer experience — a sequence that has been precisely considered both in plan and section. It impresses enormously for the measured way that it reveals information to the visitor.
If I have one caveat, it is about the handling of the tall window. Given its exceptionally dominant role within the composition, one expects this element to be the most elaborately developed. Indeed, an artwork, engraved on the glass by artist Lida Kindersley makes a gesture in that direction, but one is left wanting rather more from the architect. Save for its increased scale, does the window really have any more presence than if it had been designed at a quarter of the size? Faced with this opportunity, Horace Francis would surely have offered us a splendid oriel, wreathed in gothic tracery.
Perhaps of more relevance to the question of what Wright & Wright might have done with it is to imagine the response of a figure like Mackintosh, whose work clearly remains a central reference for the practice.
This quibble aside, Wright & Wright has done a fantastic job in the most constrained of circumstances, producing a building that sensitively extends six centuries of architectural development. Doubtless, its additions will eventually undergo changes, just as it has adjusted the work of earlier centuries.
However, the practice cites Ruskin’s edict, “when we build, let us think that we build forever”, as a sentiment close to its heart. That attachment is borne out by the building that it has delivered — a thing of considerable substance which stands apart from the more modish concerns of current architectural production.
One suspects that in another six centuries, students at Corpus will still be able to enjoy much of the practice’s work.