25 Oct 2018
One of the big tasks over this summer in the College archives has been to sort and catalogue a collection of late 19th century to early 21st century building plans that had been transferred to the College archives from the Bursar’s office and Maintenance departments. Among this collection I came across a set of architects’ plans from 1970 for a new Master’s Lodge, comprising a semi-subterranean construction with a grass roof, set in the Fellows’ Garden. This radical design would have completely changed the College’s physical environment, and I was keen to find out more about the background to the plans.
In The Hidden Hall: Portrait of a Cambridge College (2004) John Pollard wrote about building projects that were never implemented, one of which was a set of plans for a new Master’s Lodge and library commissioned in 1970 from Cambridge architects Barry Gasson and John Meunier. The building would straddle, or partially replace, the long wall between the Fellows’ Garden and Latham Lawn. It seemed that this second set of plans I had found for a semi-subterranean lodge was created by the same architects, as an alternative to those discovered by Dr Pollard.
So, what was the story behind these plans? A study of the Governing Body minutes from 1969 and 1970 reveals heated discussions about the development of the central site to meet the changing needs of the College. The undergraduate library was housed it what is now the Graham Storey Room, and a solution was required for its expansion, with the idea that building a new Master’s Lodge in the College grounds would allow for the current lodge to be refurbished as fellows’ accommodation. On the appropriateness of the architects’ designs, the minutes record that Graham Storey quoted Professor Pevsner’s verdict in support of the claim that “any building of any kind involving the destruction of the medieval crunch [sic] wall, the copper beech and the herbaceous border was an inadmissible sacrifice that no need could justify”, and the decision to abandon the project altogether was passed by 20 votes to 4, with 4 abstentions.
No mention is made in the minutes, however, of these alternative plans in the Fellows’ Garden from the same architects, the impact of which would have been quite different. The construction would involve a gradual incline on the area equivalent to the current lawn, and turfed so that it could be walked on. The view from the gate in Latham Court onto the garden would hardly change, although one would be aware of a wall rising along the north side of the incline, and the lawn itself gradually rising in height until it met that of the long wall near to the river. The herbaceous borders on the long wall between the garden and Latham Lawn and current Master’s Lodge frontage would remain, with further planting incorporated into borders on the inclined lawn.
Although the Lodge is single storey and compact, the drawings demonstrate modern architecture in its simplest and most elegant form. Barry Gasson and John Meunier operated from the Department of Architecture at 1 Scroope Terrace, where they were teaching at the time. Later on they became best known for their outstanding design for the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, built in 1983 with Brigitte Andreson as the third partner in the practice. Architectural historian Gavin Stamp described the building in The Independent, 22 November 1998, as “a truly innovative but undemonstrative building widely and rightly praised for the beauty and sensitivity of its housing of Sir William Burrell’s collection of art and antiquities”.
Seeing the proposed Master’s Lodge plans in the College archives has left me with a strong image of what might have been an extraordinary and exciting ‘intervention’ in the College landscape, that worked with rather than against the College’s other buildings, leaving the tranquillity of the gardens undisturbed.
The building plan collections are now available for study in the archive, and interested researchers can access the catalogue on Janus, the online search facility for all the University’s archives.
College Archivist (Maternity Cover 2018)