The Twentieth Century Society

Building of the month

Schlumberger Cambridge Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre

Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre

by Alistair Fair

Though the western fringe of Cambridge is home to a number of key twentieth-century buildings, including Churchill College and several Modernist villas, it is on the whole not an area of architectural distinction. Recent buildings for the University and for companies keen to be near the University are typically business-like and efficient. Yet just as one reaches the edge of the city there is something of a surprise. A view across a field reveals a tented structure, apparently billowing above a glass-fronted box. A network of posts and cables hold the ‘tent’ in place, anchoring it to the ground. At night, it has an ethereal glow. One might be forgiven for thinking that an architecturally ambitious circus had come to town. In fact, this structure is the home of Schlumberger’s Cambridge research centre, designed by Michael Hopkins and Partners and opened in 1985. It is a key work in Hopkins’ career, and one of the best 1980s buildings in Cambridge.

Schlumberger was founded in the 1920s. The firm is concerned with the technical and engineering aspects of oil-drilling. It has long had a record of progressive architectural patronage; its North American research centre at Ridgefield, Connecticut, was designed by Philip Johnson and Howard Barnstone. It was attracted to Cambridge on account of the wealth of research activity on which it might draw, and a number of sites were evaluated before High Cross, bounded by the Madingley Road and M11 motorway, was chosen.

Hopkins was selected in 1982 from a list of twenty international practices. Michael Hopkins had begun his architectural career during the 1950s with Frederick Gibberd and Basil Spence before proceeding to the Architectural Association. Here he worked with Oliver Hill; he was also tutored by John Winter, whose use of steel was to be a key influence. Here, too, he met his wife and professional partner, Patty. Hopkins practised with Norman Foster until 1976, working in particular on offices for IBM at Cosham (1970-71) and Willis Faber Dumas at Ipswich (1970-75).

For IBM, Foster and Hopkins provided a single building that could be replanned internally to suit changing requirements, questioning the idea of a close relationship between form and function. The same idea informed the design of Schlumberger’s research centre. The brief included offices, laboratories and social space, in addition to a number of test rigs in which drilling techniques and materials could be evaluated. These rigs comprise shafts of various depths in which different ground conditions and pressures can be simulated. As at IBM, Hopkins gathered the various functions together. The social advantages were felt to outweigh the problems of noise transfer and the very real risk of explosion. Two parallel strips of building, twenty-four metres apart, house the offices (facing out) and laboratories (facing in). Between are the drilling rigs and staff restaurant, covered by the tented membrane.

The office/laboratory buildings owe a clear debt to Mies van der Rohe, most obviously in the exposed lattice trusses that span these blocks above their flat roofs in a similar way to Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. There are also repeated sets of Farnsworth House-like steps. Views in and out are important. An early proposal to shade the fully-glazed elevations with canopies was rejected in favour of Venetian blinds, and the windows come alive in the evenings.

The ‘tent’ can be linked to such precedents as Frei Otto and Günther Behnisch’s Olympic Stadium at Munich (1972) and SOM’s Hajj Terminal at Jeddah (1978). Hopkins had already explored the idea in a proposal of 1982 for the central shopping square at Basildon. At Schlumberger, the result is a kind of transitional space, neither fully indoors (like the laboratories and offices) nor outdoors. The membrane reduces summer solar gain and also, though it is uninsulated, winter heat loss. It is made of Teflon-coated glassfibre, the first use of this material in the UK; it had been successfully used in several North American shopping malls. It is not a straightforward material to work with, not least because its dimensions ‘shift’ during production, requiring tension to be applied as it is installed.

The achievement of the design was something of a team effort. Engineer Anthony Hunt played a key role while the roof design was developed by the lightweight structures division of Ove Arup and Partners. Hopkins has long been a devotee of the ‘management contract’ in which the building contractor is appointed early and develops the detail of the architect’s designs.

In some ways, Schlumberger might be deemed an archetypal ‘High Tech’ building. There are certainly similarities with the contemporaneous works of Foster and Richard Rogers, though there are important differences, too: unlike Rogers, for example, Hopkins makes little of the building’s servicing. It might be more accurate to highlight the way in which Schlumberger relies for its power not only on the image created by its virtuosic structure but also the rigour with which the structural and construction details are worked out and related to each other, and also the clarity with which the structure is expressed. As Colin Davies points out in his account of Hopkins’ work, the result is more machine-like than Le Corbusier’s famous ‘machines à habiter’, though writer David Jenkins concludes that the building is essentially ‘hand made’. Whichever verdict we accept, Schlumberger surely embodies an observation by Craig Ellwood, designer of steel and glass buildings in California in the 1950s and 1960s: ‘only through structure can we create new architecture’.

Alistair Fair takes up a new post as a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh in September 2013 after four years as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the history of twentieth-century non-domestic architecture.

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