Case Study

Contemporary solution in Cambridge

Clare College

Cambridge / 2009


This project for Clare College was the subject of the most intense debate we have had within the office, when working on a competition proposal. The question was whether we should replicate the neighbouring Gilbert-Scott buildings or, instead, produce a modern, respectful and contextual design which picked up the form and massing of the existing buildings, without aping them.

We won the competition with the latter approach. We believe that new buildings can still respect their historic context, and a contemporary solution will always produce a more convincing design. We like to distinguish between what is new and what already exists.


The design reflects our sensitive use of a broad palette of materials, including brick, concrete, timber and folded brass alloy sheet, reflecting the materials of the surrounding buildings without copying them.

The winning proposal is as much about the plan as the design of the buildings, with the creation of a new quad, improved pedestrian access within the college and engagement with the adjoining public footpath across the Cambridge Backs.




The new buildings for Clare College, Cambridge, occupy the last piece of undeveloped land in the central area of the college, next to Memorial Court - a series of landscaped courtyards designed for the college by Giles Gilbert-Scott, and built in stages between 1929 and 1950. Along the edge of the site runs Burrell’s Walk, a small tree lined path which forms a disproportionately important route to the centre of Cambridge.We won the limited competition for a dedicated lecture theatre for 150 people, catering for delegates, fellows’ offices and 34 new study bedrooms suitable for delegates as well as students. The site is in a conservation area and the adjoining buildings are listed, yet planning for this contemporary approach was granted within the statutory time.



How we worked

We took the project to Stage E, final coordinated design and continued working with the client throughout the Design and Build contract, inspecting the contractor’s proposals to ensure that quality was maintained. We worked closely with the contractor’s architects, establishing a good working relationship with them.

 As is usual with a university client, we took time to explain and debate issues of planning and design with a large number of academics and others associated with the college, which often concluded with voting on proposals.  

Making it happen

Our design is based on a relatively straightforward L-shaped plan. The large adaptable lecture theatre is below ground, with the accommodation and conference wings articulated separately. Both wings have patinated sheet metal roofs, a modern response to the tone and form of the pantile roofs of the adjacent buildings.

We reinforced the grain of the existing two storey buildings which run north-south, and those running east-west which are three storeys. The conference centre is read as a two-storey building, although the lecture theatre is in the basement, and the accommodation block rises to three storeys.





The conference centre is deliberately monumental in form and materials, in contrast to the accommodation wing. The windows on the east and west are deeply recessed to cut out glare from the sun. They give a double aspect to the foyer which takes up most of the ground floor and is entered via a colonnade.

Fellows’ offices are housed on the north side of the accommodation wing’s ground floor. The windows on this elevation are angled to give views up and down Burrell’s Walk. Breakout and ancillary spaces, as well as the entrance, are to the south. We added a gyp room (kitchen) to the corners of the first and second floors of bed-sits to provide a social space for the students, as well as somewhere to cook and eat together.

To lighten the courtyard and limit the impact of the accommodation block the top two floors are clad with western red cedar. This floats over the brick base, which links the building to the brick of the conference block.



I am delighted with the result. The building is very serene, and already looks like it belongs in its site. We had our Governing Body meeting in the first floor room; the light is lovely and the views outside are captured beautifully. Congratulations on the wonderful result.’

Dr Wendy Pullan, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Clare College, Cambridge 




Clare College, Cambridge









Our Role

Architect And Lead Consultant


Brick Awards, Clare College, Cambridge
RIBA Awards, Clare College, Cambridge

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