London Calling: British Modernism's Watershed Moment - The Churchill College Competition

Fifty years ago Churchill College Cambridge opened its doors. In contrast to the historic Colleges, with their medieval Gothic and Neo-Classical buildings corralled behind high walls, this was in an almost rural setting on the outskirts of the city, modern in design, and Brutalist in detail.

The 1959 competition that brought the College into being is considered by many to be a watershed moment in British Post War architectural history. It brought together 20 names, young and old, all practicing in Britain, all working in the Modernist and more specifically the nascent Brutalist style. It was a “who’s who” of British architecture at the time, including the Smithsons, Hungarian-born Erno Goldfinger, Lasdun (then in partnership with Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew & Lindsay Drake, and formerly with Russian émigré Lubetkin), Lyons Israel Ellis and Robert Matthew (one half of the Royal Festival Hall team, who teamed up with Johnson Marshall). None of these made the shortlist of four.

London Calling: British Modernism's Watershed Moment - The Churchill College Competition - More Images+ 14

Courtesy of Churchill College Facebook Page

A Watershed Moment 

At the time of the Churchill competition, Britain had been very slow to embrace mainland European Modernism. Whilst F.R.S.Yorke’s 1934 book “The Modern House” testified to its existence in the British Isles, World War II and the severe shortages in building materials that continued well into the 1950s arrested the building industry and therefore any wider application of Modernism beyond designs for homes, education and healthcare. Churchill thus provided a stage for this new architecture, and many of the contestants went on to build not just in Oxford and Cambridge but whole new campus universities, such as Lasdun’s ziggurat scheme at the University of East Anglia. What made the outcome more poignant was the rejection of one of the four finalists, Stirling and Gowan, whose scheme has been mythologised as a result of their subsequent fame.

Churchill College, founded to commemorate the life of Sir Winston Churchill, was built on the outskirts of Cambridge; it was one of a handful of new Oxbridge Colleges including St. Catherine’s by Arne Jacobsen, New Hall by Chamberlain Powell and Bon and Fitzwilliam by Lasdun. The brief was to accommodate 500 residents that would account for most of the building, a dining hall, common rooms, auditorium, library, offices, a master’s lodge, tutor’s lodge, and some accommodation for married couples. The 42-acre site was a piece of broadly rectangular agricultural land bounded by roads on two sides. Crucially, the scheme was to be phased and at each stage to appear complete. Finally, it was to be a lasting monument to a great man that would stand for 500 years.

Courtesy of Churchill College Facebook Page

50 Years Later,  Re-examining the Churchill Proposals

To mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the College last month, the Cambridge University Land Society (CULS) held a debate in London; they invited three practicing architects and a writer – Alison Brooks, Patrick Lynch, 6A Architects and Elain Harwood - to present the work of the four finalists to a jury, including architects M.J.Long (Long & Kentish and Sandy Wilson’s widow) and Spencer de Grey (a partner at Fosters who had studied at Churchill), and academics Peter Carolin (emeritus Professor of Architecture at Cambridge University) and David Dunster (Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool). The protagonists were chosen for varying reasons: for her knowledge of Twentieth Century British Modernism and more specifically for her writings on Chamberlain Powell & Bon, Elain Harwood; to discuss Stirling and Gowan’s proposal, Patrick Lynch, a graduate of both Liverpool and Cambridge who recently collaborated with John McAslan to renovate Stirling’s Florey Building for Queens College Oxford; representing Howell, Killick & Partridge, Alison Brooks, who is currently working on a scheme for Exeter College Oxford; and to talk about Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners’ winning scheme, 6A Architects, who are working on an addition to Churchill itself.

Chamberlain Powell and Bonn’s Proposal

Proposal: Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. Image Courtesy of Frank Woods, via e-architect

In 1959 Chamberlain Powell and Bonn had just been appointed to design the adjacent New Hall College. Chamberlain planned to unite New Hall, Churchill, and a third new College, Fitzwilliam, around a new piazza, at the heart of which would stand a campanile. The architectural language exhibits some of the lightness of their earlier Golden Lane estate in London and the barrel-vaulted skyline of their as-yet-undeveloped Barbican complex, also in London, but with none of its Brutalist qualities. The design perspective, produced by the well known architect/architectural illustrator Gordon Cullen, shows an extensive modern cityscape populated by a number of monumental structures. 

Of the four finalists it is the least well documented and apparently the least distinctive. However, had they won, it is Cambridge – the ‘city’ – which would have been most affected. The plan would have created a substantial urban quarter and counterpoint to the nexus of historic city centre Colleges, in contrast to the autonomous College campuses set back from the suburban streets one encounters today.

Howell Killick & Partridge’s Proposal

Proposal: Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis. Image Courtesy of John Partridge, via e-architect

Howell Killick & Partridge’s design consisted of two large interlocking horseshoe-shaped courtyards. Somewhat irregular in plan, the scheme seems at first glance, as Alison Brooks suggested, to be organic. The courts, which are separated from the grounds by a moat, open up to the west. The ground plan is drawn to describe the vaulting that would have characterized much of the circulation. Further complexity is introduced by faceting the facades. The two key spaces, the hall and library, mark the point where the two courtyards intersect. The nature of this place is revealed by the perspective, which illustrates, in the foreground, a man sat under a tree reading and people punting on the moat. The view reveals a vista into the southern court and the crescent-shaped north range, dramatized by the festive roof forms of the library and hall. 

The scene is picturesque. It recollects Nash’s architecture, in particular the crescents around London’s Regent’s Park and the skyline of his most exotic work, the Orientally-inspired Brighton Pavilion. Had it been built it would have been a mélange of festive Gothic Baroque executed in concrete instead of stone or stucco. Although it placed second in the original competition, the 21st Century jury was highly critical of Howell Killick & Partridge, due both to a number of the scheme’s functional shortcomings and their over-elaborate Expressionism.

Stirling and Gowan’s Proposal

Proposal: Stirling & Gowan. Image Courtesy of James Gowan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, via e-architect

Not surprisingly, on the night of the CULS debate, Stirling and Gowan’s well-known scheme - which has appeared everywhere from Colin Rowe’s early endorsement to numerous subsequent publications, including Amanda Reeser Lawrence’s 2012 ‘James Stirling Revisionary Modernist,’  which dedicates one of just six chapters to the scheme - was the most keenly anticipated. 

The plan creates an 180m x 180m court framed by a 2-storey perimeter wall of student residences elevated above an earth bund. As the architects described in their competition report: ‘The open, flat and rural character of the site indicated that in designing a group of buildings as a residential College it was important to create an internal environment, private, enclosed and protected.’ Inside, the dining room, library and other congregating spaces are arranged within the four quadrants of the quad.

The library from Stirling and Gowan’s entry to the Churchill College, Cambridge competition (1958). Image Courtesy of BD Online

Stirling & Gowan’s scheme, although for a Cambridge University College, bore the hallmark of a large English Baroque country house. Indeed, Colin Rowe’s article The Blenheim of the Welfare State,’ published soon after the winning scheme was announced, made connections between John Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace, coincidentally the ancestral home to the Churchill family, and the scheme. By linking Stirling and Gowan’s early architecture to Vanbrugh, one of the great English architects, Rowe suggests that it is an appropriate model for the College — that modernism is not just Functionalism but may also draw on history. According to Rowe then, Stirling and Gowan’s proposal best understood this history while also suggesting a shockingly modern future. Its simple order and abstraction enabled it to serve these two apparently uncompromising masters. Furthermore, it was both urban and rural, domestic and civic, fitting for a 500-year monument.

However, although the original jury described it as ‘impressive,’ it’s perfect geometry and great scale did not lend itself to the phased development that was sought in the brief.

Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners’ Proposal

Proposal: Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners. Image Courtesy of Sheppard Robson, via e-architect

6A described Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners’ winning scheme through the lens of their own work: an as yet unbuilt residential court for the College, won in a competition in 2008.  6A’s freestanding courtyard building extends the pattern of Sheppard’s masterplan, which consists of ten interlocking large and small courtyards arranged in clusters around a mega-court within which the primary buildings are laid out. The scheme is informal, the parts jostling to make a whole. At three storeys, it is relatively low-key and certainly isn’t demonstrably ideological or technological. It is Brutalist, wrought in brick and intentionally oversized concrete elements. It is mat-like, in plan, attentive to the detail and generous in the manner in which it frames the landscapes within the courtyards and outside  of them.

Courtesy of Churchill College

6A’s interpretation of Sheppard (because that is what it is), the consistent use of type and the incredible dimensional similarities have allowed the architect to explore rich contrasts in space and material that future residents will no doubt enjoy. 

A World, an Opportunity, Lost

The evening provided a window into a world now lost, an age of unabashed optimism. It also offered insights in the work of three practices whose work is largely forgotten. Lynch’s words brought into sharp focus the lost opportunity that was the Stirling and Gowan scheme. The Blenheim of the Welfare State might, as Leicester illustrates beautifully, have matured from a humble and somewhat crude set of drawings into a great work. Equally Chamberlain’s ideas might, in establishing a strong urban locus, have prevented the suburbanization of the city fringes of Cambridge. And, Howell Killick & Partridge’s scheme, which was a close second, would have given us a delirious modernism steeped in Englishness on a scale not seen since the Woods in Bath and Nash in London – an opportunity which subsequently eluded the practice, perhaps in part due to the early deaths of both Howell and Killick. In the end it was the careful attention to the brief and perceptive application of tradition in aping the courtyard motif that brought victory to Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners. But one can’t help feeling that the result, in its preoccupation with detail in its many guises, was somewhat small-minded - an opportunity lost.

Simon Henley is a teacher, author of the well-received book The Architecture of Parking, and co-founder of London-based studio Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR). His column, London Calling, looks at London’s every-day reality, its architectural culture, and its role as a global architectural hub; above all, it will explore how London is influencing design everywhere, whilst being forever challenged from within. You can follow him @SiHenleyHHbR and be a fan of his Facebook page, HHbR Architecture.

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Cite: Simon Henley. "London Calling: British Modernism's Watershed Moment - The Churchill College Competition" 30 Jun 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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