The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire

Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, 800pp, £35)

Reviewed by Alan Powers

The last edition of Pevsner’s Cambridgeshire was in 1970, updated after an interval of 17 years from the first in 1954. These were Pevsner’s years of close association with the university, first as Slade Professor for a record six years from 1949 to 1955, then returning in the winter terms until 1974 to give Friday evening public lectures. The buildings that went up between 1954 and 1970 offered material for a critical overview of the different varieties of modernism, from the picturesque compositions of Casson and Conder in the Faculty of Arts complex on Sidgwick Avenue – which he favoured, even if it was a little too ‘wilful’ for his taste – to James Stirling’s History Faculty, ‘not ugly in the vociferous way of the brutalists, but ugly more basically by avoiding anything that might attract’. Other buildings, arguably of national significance, were Leslie Martin’s Harvey Court for Caius College (with Patrick Hodgkinson and Colin St John Wilson), Powell and Moya’s Cripps Building at St John’s (Pevsner’s favourite) and Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s New Hall, which he disliked – ‘It just is not the spirit of our age.’

Simon Bradley had the exacting task of retracing the steps of the master, most particularly in reconsidering his judgments of what was then the recent past. Pevsner’s paragraph on Stirling is reproduced, but a more positive approach is suggested, especially to the ‘unforgettable’ interior. Brutalism has made a come-back, and in writing about Sheppard Robson’s Churchill College, Bradley remarks that ‘many may feel that the studied seriousness of Churchill now reads as a reprimand to the showy icon-mongering of too much early C21 design.’

Around 1970, a new age of architectural politeness began to dawn, and the History Faculty was even considered for demolition around the time of its 30th anniversary. Ralph Erskine was beginning work on Clare Hall, which Pevsner foresaw as ‘a highly complicated toy environment’, and the major new college building was Robinson, by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. Cambridge became a place to study the emergence of post-modernism, ‘less as quotations or parodies than in terms of a renewed interest in mouldings, cornices, gables and other evocative motifs, a return to symmetrical compositions, and a higher tolerance of colour and pattern’, as Bradley summarises it. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, this produced some surprises, from Quinlan Terry’s strangely stiff-limbed classical additions to Downing, looking across Tennis Court Road to the back of John Outram’s Judge Centre, where coloured decoration busts out in a very un-Cambridge manner. ‘What on earth to make of all this?’ asks Bradley, deciding ultimately in its favour.

For buildings up to 1970, Pevsner’s original words are often woven seamlessly together with Bradley’s revisions. For Edward Maufe’s North Court at St John’s for example, Pevsner’s criticism that it should have been ‘in the style of the 20th century’ is dropped, but his analysis of its shortcomings as a design remains largely intact. Stephen Dykes Bower’s Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, is described by Pevsner as ‘reactionary to a degree almost unbelievable in 1957-58’, but while Bradley drops this characteristic phrase, he disappointingly does not offer a fresh judgment of the design.

After 1970, the westward expansion of the University into Science Parks began, followed by the transformation of the area around the station which is still happening. Bradley bravely exhorts that ‘national and international practices working here know that they are up against the best, and must give their best in return.’ We are still finding out whether there is a ‘style of the 21st century’ in the way that Pevsner so strongly believed there was one correct one for his own time. Maybe it is the crisp European brickwork of the celebrated Accordia development in the southern part of the City, but Cambridge has sprouted its own mini new town, called Cambourne, whose architecture, in Bradley’s words, ‘is a strange affair.’ With approximations of Georgian and Victorian in its housing, ‘here and there, Cambourne’s mixture of Modern, post-modern and revived styles delivers something almost like a sense of place, although the sense of unreality never quite goes away.’ But which of these, one asks, is necessarily more real than the other?