Design concepts

Our brief to the architects called for buildings that would fit sympathetically into the surrounding residential area, providing peace and quiet to allow the users periods of concentrated thought, but also promoting interaction among them. We travelled the country talking to architects and looking at buildings, to find an architect who seemed sympathetic to our particular needs and who would be willing to talk with us to discover exactly what they were. Our search ended with Ted Cullinan. Together with his partners Johnny Winter and Carol Costello, over the past three years he has devoted countless hours patiently discussing with us every detail of the designs. In the latest issue of Cambridge, the magazine of the The Cambridge Society, Mr Cullinan writes:

When I was a child I imagined that architects were asked by clients to design a building and they then imagined it, drew it, and saw to its building. Indeed, when Prince Charles and many others talk about architecture they often seem to talk as if the process consists only of choosing a shape and a style for a building. But it was never thus. The architect's imagined golden age when he designed buildings just as he liked, without interference, is a golden age that did not happen. Architects have worked for and been bullied by warlords and dictators; they have done the bidding of nobles, drawing precisely what they were told to draw; they have worked for oligarchies and vacillating committees; they have worked for too little; they have been dominating bullies themselves, and they have been taken for a ride. One need only read the depressingly vituperative correspondence between Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and the architect Vanbrugh, which preceded his sacking from the construction of Blenheim Palace, to know that the design and building of buildings has always been complicated and often fraught.

So I thought it would be interesting to describe the Centre for Mathematical Sciences and its associated Library in terms of the main forces which impinge on an architect today, and I will give a few examples of how these forces affected the design, My first force is, of course: The Client. Clients come in many forms: the most depressing ones being non-clients, when the future users of a building are completely absent; being represented by a disinterested superior body or a project manager who provides no push, no pull, no debate, only the endless repetition of ordinariness or precedent for the kind of building being built. Our clients in Cambridge, the University and more particularly the mathematicians, are the opposite of depressing: deeply involved and inquisitive about every aspect of the building. It has been like having bright clients for their own house; direct contact, immediate interest, speedy comprehension.

Two aspects of the building profoundly affected by our clients and by our visits to their present premises I will call Degrees of Privacy and Publicness; and Natural Ventilation.

Looking at their present premises you could say ``Aha, they need hundreds of little cubby-hole offices behind doors off corridors'' But that would be to ignore what is on the other side of the office doors. So we start by gathering the offices on galleries round stairs and a lift, limiting the number on each gallery, often to people with a shared discipline. Three floors of galleries go to make a pavilion (in the Classical sense, not the cricket sense) and on the ground floor, somewhat visible from all three floors, is a coffee room/seminar/meeting room for larger, pavilion-sized meetings, arranged and un-arranged. The meeting room of each pavilion overlooks a large shared space where you will come across people from the other pavilions and where you eat, relax, have meetings, work things out together, or organise big gatherings. We like to think of the pavilion meetings rooms overlooking the large shared space as classic American front porches. On top of the large shared space is a fully fledged grassy garden which all the pavilions open onto as well, via their upper level terraces. So you can enter or leave your pavilion for the still wider sphere of Cambridge and the world via your pavilion's own front door, via the shared central space, via the basement lecture rooms or via the roof garden: an embodiment of the thought that in harmonious institutions (and cities and almost anywhere) there should be, at the least, two routes to everywhere so that you can choose whether you meet people or not and whom you meet without offending.

To enjoy the climate, to save money and energy, and to connect to the outdoors, our clients and we were keen to use natural ventilation wherever possible. This shaped the pavilions and other buildings both in the particular and the general. In past times, before the age of air conditioning and heat-generating computers, all buildings were naturally ventilated via leaky or open windows, open fires and chimneys; and in the winter you dressed up warm and burnt great amounts of smokey fuel, or froze. The Maths pavilions are shaped in particular to allow air into all rooms below knee level and out above eye level, and all the openings are shaded by deep reveals, against excessive solar gain, rain, sleet and snow. The buildings are ventilated upwards from the basements, the central area and the upper offices out through the central crowning lantern; and this determines the shape of the building in general.

My second force I will call Regulations and Authorities. Buildings are controlled by statutory regulations concerning lighting, sound control, insulation, construction and so on; easy to follow. Far harder and more ephemeral are the suggested wishes of the City Planning Department, English Heritage (because we are in a conservation area), and their advisers such as the Royal Fine Art Commission. Harder still is the statement that new buildings in a conservation area should be sympathetic to their surroundings, and hardest of all, that they should enhance the conservation area. I think it is almost entirely a matter of personal judgement as to whether a building does either of these things. Is the Fellows' building at Kings, for example, sympathetic to the surrounding buildings and does it enhance the surroundings?

Typical of the results of lengthy discussions with planning officers and others are the fact that the pavilions are more separated than our clients would have liked, in order to maintain vistas across the site and a park-like setting; that public paths and bikeways are established alongside the site; that the buildings are no more than three floors above the ground; and that pale gault bricks are used because they are perceived to be in sympathy with the locale.

And the planners in turn are profoundly affected by the opinions of Local Residents. A combined and powerful conservationist voice was heard from the nearby residents. We listened, we reduced the amount of building, opening more vistas, we made the pavilions the same width as the houses opposite, we furthered the appearance of the central building as a grassy hill, we abandoned a request by Planners to build along the roads and moved the buildings further and further back into the parkland, and we reacted in many other ways to make peace with our new neighbours.

And finally, there are the Architects. We composed and drew the buildings not as a simple reaction to external pressure but reacting deliberately, our way. And our way is a way which is profoundly affected by the present tradition: the tradition that was born in cubism and the idea of abstraction; the tradition that makes you want to interpenetrate spaces and planes, to break down the separation between inside and out, to design in terms of sticks, planes surfaces, transparency, opaqueness, translucence, colour and texture. It is an extremely powerful modern compositional tradition which is still developing and growing, and which is well able to take on the social and ecological demands of the immediate future.

For whatever forces and pressure are applied to Architects, they can only truthfully design what they can imagine within the limits of their imagination.


The Cambridge Society was set up by the University in 1976. It supports the University by spreading information about its activities and achievements, and by keeping Cambridge people in touch with each other, through the magazine Cambridge, and through a network of Branches. Resident and non-resident members of the University are encouraged to join. The annual subscription is 10 pounds.

Details from The Administrator, The Cambridge Society, 32 Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1QY. Email cmfk2@hermes.cam.ac.uk.