A Study of the Cambridge Faculty of History Building

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A Study of the Cambridge Faculty of History Building

The Faculty of History building at Cambridge was the second of numerous university buildings designed by James Stirling. Working in partnership with James Gowen, Stirling’s first University project, the Department of Engineering at the University of Leicester encompassed four interesting design brief stipulations, two of which appear to have exerted some influence on the external appearance and design composition of the Faculty of History building at Cambridge.

For the University of Leicester project, laboratory work space was required to be flexible with regard to configuration in order to meet the changing demands of experimentation and laboratory work, a structure was required capable of housing a water tank for hydraulic purposes at a height of 100 feet above ground level, direct sunlight was to be avoided due to instrumentation sensitivity, and finally, exposed concrete could be used as a visible exterior finish. According to John Jacobus, the outcome is a “form that is rich in colour and surface, but its shapes are never gratuitous, and, what’s more, none of them looks fanciful, in spite of their novelty. It is a functional building that looks functional, a factory-like laboratory and classroom building which gives every appearance of being just that; a factory for study (but not, emphatically, an education factory) (footnote: 1964 April: Engineering Building, Leicester university by James Stirling (Leicester, UK) by John Jacobus, Architectural Review, 28 March 2011).

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The design brief stipulations with respect to exterior finish and the limitation on direct sunlight resulted in extensive use of north facing glazed aspects surrounded by and juxtaposed against visually dominant red brickwork comprising entire elevations, a bold horizontal facade forming exterior cladding for the high level area accommodating the water tank, and, multiple narrow vertical columns. Although strikingly different in outcome, one cannot help drawing parallels between the Leicester and Cambridge buildings and concluding that some inspiration for the Cambridge building was drawn from Stirling’s first University design mandate. Both buildings share vast expanses of glass interrupted by red brickwork that creates a powerful yet heavy statement.

Stirling and Gowen parted company post completion of the Leicester project, leaving Stirling to complete the design and compete for the Cambridge mandate without any design encumbrance associated with partnership for his final competition submission. The design of the Cambridge building was completed in 1963 with Stirling emerging as winner of the design competition. Following a re-orientation of the proposed building from a Southwest to a Southeast facing direction, construction commenced in 1964 and was concluded in 1968.

The building is situated on the Sidgwick site and houses the Seeley Historical library. In providing a working space for up to 300 people, as well as a small number of computers, it is one of the largest libraries belonging to the University of Cambridge network of libraries. Once in use, various shortcomings both in terms of design and construction detail came to light. Practical shortcomings included thermal performance associated with single skin glazing and roof leakage. Debate surrounding the building centred on function versus form and for many regular users, the library was regarded as a space not suitable to work within. In 1984, approximately 16 years after opening, the History Faculty was at risk of demolition before a decision was made to modify the existing building in order to preserve the successful elements of the building whilst rectifying those aspects regarded as flawed.

In this study I will be focussing on the exterior design of the History faculty, and how some of Stirling’s design choices impact the experiential quality of the library.

The Faculty of History building can be regarded as the centre of the Sidgwick site as it is situated at an intersection point, with multiple pathways converging on it. Accordingly, the building has four main entrances, with one at each corner. Since the building is approached and observable from various directions as a result of being sited at an intersection, the overall visual aspect, presence and exterior quality of the building are of great importance. One drawback of being sited at an intersection is the presence of other buildings.

With the History building surrounded on all sides by other buildings, it is unable to maximise its standalone identity as well as its ability to come to life during two of the most inspiring light aspect periods of the day. While surrounding buildings are all within close proximity to the History Faculty, none of them are of great height, which does go some way towards reducing their interference with sunlight and their ability to provide distraction versus the centrepiece. Nevertheless, the History building’s inability to enjoy uninterrupted exposure to direct sunlight at sunrise and sunset oes not allow the building to generate the maximum impact of direct extreme acute angle sunlight on the building. Full exposure to near horizontal sunlight would produce all possible outcomes relating to the reflection and refraction of sunlight. For the majority of observers, this impediment will not be given great consideration as the library opens at 9am, by which time the sun is high enough in the sky for the buildings south of the History Faculty not to act as a barrier. Additionally, the lowest of the surrounding buildings is positioned on the west side of the library thus minimising the amount of time lost to sunset light effects generated by the building.

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At its most basic level, the building is composed of two primary forms; a vast, single storey area, triangular in plan which is set within an L-shaped multi-storey structure. The Seeley library occupies the single storey space, which is open to all members of the university, while the multi-storey structure provides offices space, meeting rooms and lecture rooms for staff and students of the History department. The overall form is successful as it allows the library to be placed at the heart of building providing both visual and physical benefits.

The building has a reinforced concrete frame with a steel roof providing structural integrity while the exterior is clad in stretcher bonded red brick and exhibits non-structural patent glazing. This method of bonding provides a visual uniformity and repetition that emphasises the separate elements of the building together. The vast majority of the building is in fact glazed, which provides superior levels of natural light inside and creates an interesting appearance on the outside through the reflections that vary according to both the time of day and weather conditions. Similar to the masonry, the glazing is uniform in its clear divisions of panels, giving the glass a presence while remaining visually lightweight. The primary materials visible on the interior are paint and tile. According to Stirling this combination produced an aesthetic that could be likened to a Television Studio (citation needed).

The most impressive feature of the building is it’s tiered, pitched, glazed roof that covers the central reading area of the library. The design is symmetrical along its short axis, as can be seen when viewing the building from the southeast. From this particular viewpoint it could be argued that glazing is overused and that the inclusion of more red brick, particularly towards the base of the building, would have created a more grounded aesthetic with better balance. While the roof successfully manages natural light in the library area, there is a visual conflict between the masonry and the library roof. Setting the visually heavy and imposing red brick cladding against the weightless glazing seems to suggest a fundamental desire to create a strong contrast between different parts of the building. However, the roof is very heavy in its angular and over defined form. It is likely that the building would have benefitted from more subtlety in this area.

Another important external feature is the buttress-like form of the multi-storey, L-shape part of the building. Not only is it visually eye-catching, it also creates a sense structural surety and grounding that is absent from other areas of the external design. This form determines and articulates the program for the building; the smallest rooms, situated on the top floor can only be occupied by offices, while the larger rooms on the lower floors can be used as meeting rooms and for lectures as the space permits.

One aspect of the exterior that detracts from the visual impact of the building is the large raised platform adjoined to the north facade. The platform is by no means redundant as it provides an entrance to the building and access to the roof allowing for maintenance. However, its excessive size means that most of the space is currently disused. One possible improvement, subject to structural capacity, would be to create a casual outdoor seating area. This is something that the Sidgwick site currently lacks and by virtue of being on a raised platform would assist in creating a clear distinction between the formal working space and an informal community space.

In the initial designs the glazed library roof faced southwest. However, due to restrictions regarding the land ownership, the entire building had to be rotated 90 degrees towards the east. As a result, the multi-storey structure covers part of the library roof in shadow during the afternoon. Clearly this has a negative impact on the lighting of the library in the afternoon and resulted in excessive thermal gain during the morning. Interestingly, no alterations were made to the building’s design to compensate for the change in orientation. Had there been no ownership restrictions the library would have enjoyed natural light until considerably later in the day, which would have been a preferential outcome subject to satisfactory thermal provisioning.

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Upon entering the building it becomes apparent that the library is set below ground level, this design choice has both its advantages and disadvantages. Students working in the library can benefit from both high levels of privacy and an absence of eye level distraction; the below ground level aspect eliminates all manner of communication with those outside the building. One potential negative outcome of the below ground arrangement is the lack of outward visual aspect for those spending prolonged periods of time in the library. Without the abundance of natural light flooding in from the glazed roof, this space could have been at risk of being a depressing environment. The working area of the library is arranged as a radial in front of a raised reception area. This provides those working at reception with an unobstructed view of the library, therefore allowing easy monitoring of library users and deterring any actions that are not suitable within the library.

This decision to set the library below ground level, combined with the floor to ceiling glazed façade gives this part of the building an uneasy floating quality, as the load bearing wall supporting the glass and the structure above is not visible from the outside. Perhaps Stirling was trying to create the impression that the glass provides the structural support, when this is clearly not possible. Additionally, positioning the library below ground seems to challenge the extensive implementation of glazing, the purpose of which is to bring natural light into the library. This is a minor complaint as there is no real lack of light in the library.

An aspect of the building that I particularly appreciate is the reflection of the exterior form on the interior layout. This is most prevalent in the library, where the L-shaped structure forms the boundary of the central reading area and the tables and bookshelves follow the form of the glazed roof structure that sits directly above. This gives the building a great sense of coherence and makes the transition between interior and exterior spaces very natural.

The central reading area of the library can rely on natural light depending on the time of year for the majority of its 9am-7:30pm opening hours, all because of the roof. At an angle of approximately 40 degrees the roof lets in far more light than standard vertical glazed façades with solid roofs. Such designs reduce the angle of light penetration and therefore the distance that light penetrates into the building.

Internally, the roof has a layer of clouded glass (? Clouded glass or blinds ?). This helps to distribute the light evenly, in addition to preventing glare, which can be a major distraction in some working environments. By reducing the intensity of the light ‘hot spots’ are less likely to occur within the library. The vastness of the central space in terms of ceiling height and floor area along with the controlled natural light and neutral internal decoration scheme provides a very comfortable working area where there is no sense of enclosure or oppressiveness.

The light from the roof and the surrounding glass façade also permeates areas of the library surrounding the centre. These areas provide additional space to read and study, as well as housing the library’s collection of books. When compared to the central reading space, these areas have low ceilings with no natural light from directly above. While natural light alone is not sufficient in these areas very little artificial lighting is required to create suitable working conditions during the lightest hours of the day. However, early in the morning and late in the afternoon substantially higher levels of artificial lighting are required. While this can be considered a flaw from an energy consumption perspective, it does provide users with a different experience and while some may prefer the abundance of natural light in the expanse of the central reading space, others may prefer the combination of natural and artificial light offered elsewhere within the building.

The Faculty of History building excels on a number of levels, yet fundamentally fails from a visual standpoint. Its combination of red brick and vast glazed facades is unusual and therefore attention grabbing. The design contradicts itself in some cases, the most detrimental of which is the visually heavy and angular roof. Interestingly, the roof is very effective when it comes to the provision of natural lighting for the library and helps to create an appealing internal space. However, the fact that the central and dominant external feature of the building fails in its external visual appeal casts doubt over the overall success and design of the building.