Cambridge, showcase for modernism (and how costly it is to fix)

In a review of the new Pevsner Cambridgeshire, Simon Heffer admires the city at its heart that doubles as an ancient university and a showpiece of modern architecture

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner

Yale, pp.560, £35, ISBN: 9780300205961

The Pevsner architectural guides are around halfway through their revisions — though it is like the Forth Bridge, and soon it will be time for the revisions to be revised: it is 30 years since the new London: 2, for example. Aficionados have keenly awaited the Cambridgeshire volume, the latest in the series, because of the substantial new building undertaken by Cambridge University since Pevsner himself last catalogued it in the early 1970s (his first edition appeared in 1954). For most people the county is summarised by two buildings: Ely cathedral, ‘the ship of the fens’, and King’s College chapel. Both were admired by Pevsner, who reserved much of his disdain for Victorian buildings, and whose judgments about the 1960s architecture of the city seemed in some cases extravagant.

The volume covers the historic county: the Huntingdonshire revision, including buildings in the post-1974 administrative county, appeared earlier this year. Simon Bradley, the general editor of the series, has undertaken the revision of this important volume himself and observes of Cambridge that ‘no other English city outside London, Oxford not excepted, has achieved so much architecturally since 1945’.

The large amounts of patronage as the university expands, and the importance of the university’s architecture school, have made the city a field of intense competition among contemporary architectural practices, all of which seek to do their best. And nor is Cambridge any longer mainly the university: the effect of the proximity of it has stimulated a science park, research establishments, industry (especially technology) and extensive new housing for affluent clients, all of which have contributed to making the city an exhibition hall of modern architecture.

But this revision is also open about the faults of some modern architecture. New Court at Christ’s, built by Denys Lasdun in 1966–70, is termed an ‘arrogant intrusion’ on King Street, onto which it backs. It also points out how defective the materials were, and how they have had to be patched up. The Cripps Building at St John’s, considered revolutionary when it was built in the 1960s, is also castigated for the inadequacy of materials: ‘This very expensive building proved to have very expensive flaws’, such as water leaking in through the roof and the underfloor heating failing: the college has just spent a fortune repairing it.

James Stirling’s History Faculty building is praised as having been ‘a brilliant and influential design’ but ‘one with deep flaws in conception and execution’. This entailed ‘cruelly expensive’ remedial work. It makes one wonder why the university and its colleges don’t stick to old-fashioned stone and brick, such as still stands in some places after over 600 years, and is far more respectful of context.

In the city, the Victorians at last get their due — notably Alfred Waterhouse at Gonville and Caius, Pembroke and in his design for the Cambridge Union Society. And G.F. Bodley built one of the finest Victorian churches in England, never mind in Cambridge, in All Saints, Jesus Lane, which includes work executed by William Morris himself. But for all the modern interest of Cambridge and the wealth of grand buildings from the late Gothic and Renaissance period, it is the small survivals of the ancient that are often the most moving in considering the architecture of the city;and the book is suitably definitive about the ancient Saxon church of St Benet’s, the Old Court at Corpus that adjoins it — built shortly after 1352, it is the oldest continually inhabited court in the university — and the Round Church between St John’s and the Union Society, built by the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre around 1130.

Cambridge itself takes up almost half the book, which is beautifully illustrated, as all modern Pevsners are, with colour photographs and many plans and maps. There are 50 pages on Ely Cathedral and its precinct, an essay of far greater detail than in the two earlier editions of this county.

The churches of rural Cambridgeshire are also covered in far more depth than Pevsner had time to do on his original lightning tour of the county in the early 1950s, and gems are highlighted, such as Isleham with its superb funerary monuments, and the stunning Norman interior of Ickleton, which the revision concedes has few equals in the country.

This magisterial and scholarly inventory of the county’s buildings will unquestionably entice readers to look at Cambridge and Ely with fresh eyes; but it is no less valuable for the way in which it opens up all the rest of the county, and reveals treasures that the great institutions of university and cathedral otherwise overshadow.

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Show comments
  • Chris Morriss

    The Pugin stained glass picture at the head of this article is absolutely gorgeous.

  • Mr Grumpy

    “an exhibition hall of modern architecture”: Your words, Mr Heffer, or a cut and paste from the book? If the former, where are the star exhibits to be found, please? They must be very well hidden – unlike the numerous oversized eyesores springing up all over the city