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Downing College + University Arms Cambridge

What Has Been Will Be Again

The late David Watkin, Professor Emeritus of History of Architecture in the Department of History of Art at Cambridge University, was a super fan. He wrote at least two books on the architect: Quinlan Terry (2006) and Radical Classicism The Architecture of Quinlan Terry (2015).

Pastiche is a criticism often levelled at neoclassical architects but rarely at Modernist practitioners. Sammy Leslie, châtelaine of Castle Leslie, gives a sharp riposte to any suggestions of pastiche aimed at the traditionally designed houses by Dawson Stelfox of Consarc Design Group in the walled estate of her County Monaghan castle. “They’re original designs, not copies. For example, although they’re village houses, the bay window idea comes from the castle. The development is all about integration with the existing village. It’s contextual. These houses are like fine wine. They’ll get better with age. There’s a fine line between copying and adapting but we’ve gone for the latter.” And as Ecclesiastes 1:9 notes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Professor Watkin certainly believed in the aging Cabernet Sauvignon argument, and, evidently, the Oxford Comma. “Quinlan Terry notes that the Psalms are a patchwork of Moses and the Prophets; that in the New Testament the apostles constantly quote the Old Testament; and that Shakespeare can only be understood properly when one realises that he is frequently quoting earlier writers. Aristotle claimed in the Poetics that imitation, mimesis, is the common principle of all the poetic arts. He believed that the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood and distinguishes us from the animals. For him, poetry is the imitation of life through rhythm, language, and harmony. The inventive response to precedent as well as the role of imitation are demonstrated by the fact that three major works of Quinlan and Francis, Hanover Lodge, Kilboy, and Ferne Park, have all involved their making sympathetic yet imaginative and large scale responses to earlier buildings, which, in the case of Ferne, they had designed themselves.” Jeremy Musson admired Kilboy in Country Life (2016) “Kilboy is a masterpiece, a highly crafted interpretation of the Palladian tradition that cannot fail to impress.”

Critic Jonathan Meades as ever gets it right. He writes about the “worldwide scream of accusatory architects: ‘Pastiche!’” in his essay France in Pedro and Ricky Come Again (2021). “The architectural doxa decrees that pastiche is a Very Bad Thing Indeed. The collective convention forgets the history of architecture is the history of pastiche and theft: von Klenze’s Walhalla above the Danube is based on the Parthenon; G G Scott’s St Pancras borrows from Flemish cloth halls; Arras’s great squares are imitations of themselves.” And in his essay Obituaries in the same collection: “Architecture like poetry is founded in copyism and plagiarism – both vertical, looting the past; and horizontal, stealing from the present. The obscure past, of course, and the geographically distant present.”

Quinlan Terry has designed several infill buildings in the sedate setting of Downing College, Cambridge. David Watkin writes, “The Fellows of Downing College voted for the appraisal of Quinlan Terry’s Howard Building (1986 to 1989) in 1983, not so much because he promised classical forms, but because they were persuaded that any building by him would be solidly constructed and would have a long life. Cambridge was by now acutely aware of the structural and environmental faults of the structural and environmental failures that afflict High Tech modernist glass buildings – James Stirling’s famous History Faculty Building (1964 to 1967), for example, was visibly decaying and surrounded by a wire fence labelled ‘Dangerous Structure. Keep Out.’ Members of the History Faculty came within one vote of demolishing it and replacing it with something more sensible.”

But demolition of the prominent neoclassicist’s buildings has indeed occurred. Professor Watkin again, “Terry also provided Downing College with a modest, one storied, freestanding Junior Combination Room that resembles a garden pavilion, as well as Richmond House, a range of shops and offices that fits effortlessly into Regent Street, next to the college.” The three storey plus attics Richmond House on Regent Street backing onto the grounds of Downing College is safe for now. But the single storey Butterfield House as the Common Room became known as is for the chop. Inefficiency of volume is the justification. Kathryn Ferry notes in Bungalows (2014), “The first book specifically dedicated to bungalow design was published in 1891 by the architect Robert Alexander Briggs.” Architects of the moment Caruso St John have secured planning permission to replace the 1987 building with a larger three storey block. Caruso St John’s design is still inspired by William Wilkins’ college buildings but is a much more streamlined toned down lower key less prescriptive interpretation compared to its predecessor on this site. Unusually, the replacement stone faced building will incorporate a hardwood panelled pediment over the second floor.

Two presumably more permanent 20th century additions to Downing College are Howard Court and Maitland Robinson Library. Again, the Professor Emeritus is full of praise: “Terry’s Howard Court at Downing College, a three storied range of chambers 11 bays long, continues the Doric colonnade of the Howard Building at right angles to it but as an open internal passageway. Casement windows on the top storey echo those in the nearby buildings from 1930 to 1932 and 1950 to 1953 by Sir Herbert Baker and A T Scott. A generous building of Ketton stone with widely spaced windows below broadly projecting Tuscan eaves – a development of Terry’s houses in Frog Meadow in Dedham – Howard Court is popular with the undergraduates who live in it.”

“Terry built the square planned Maitland Robinson Library (1990 to 1992) at Downing College of loadbearing Ketton stone,” explains David Watkin. “Its many Grecian references remind one of Wilkins’s scholarly knowledge of Athenian architecture, and include a powerful Greek Doric portico inspired by the gateway into the Roman Agora (10 BC) in Athens, and Wilkins’s own unexecuted Greek Doric porter’s lodge for Downing College, inspired by the Propylaca in Athens (439 to 432 BC). Additionally, the portico of Terry’s library, especially in its relation to the rest of building, echoes Wilkins’s now demolished portico of about 1805 at Osberton Park in Nottinghamshire. The metopes in the Doric frieze of the library are filled with large scale carved symbols representing the subjects taught and studied in the college. The doorcase in the portico combines Greek work, including canted architraves, with references to Michelangelo’s elegant doorcase in his Medici Chapel in Florence (begun 1520). The capriccio of Athenian references includes the octagonal tower surmounting the library, inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens (1st century BC), and the eastern portico, which is indebted to the now destroyed Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus (319 BC) on the Acropolis. The top lit octagonal staircase hall contains panels of stucco decoration designed by Francis Terry and inspired by those of the Ata Pacia in Rome.” Andreas Papadakis writes in Classical Modern Architecture, 1997, “The entrance door is a combination of Greek key pattern with splayed architraves.”

He jumps to Quinlan Terry’s defence once more: “Criticism of the Howard Building came from the distinguished critic Gavin Stamp in the Architects’ Journal in March 1988, even though he had previously written in praise of Terry’s work in Architectural Digest. His condemnation of the handling of the classical language in the Howard Building and of its ‘sham’ features were refuted, respectively, in two accompanying essays by the distinguished historian Sir John Summerson, and by the architect Léon Krier. Summerson explained, ‘I had an opposite opinion to Stamp where the exterior is concerned. My own first view of the building gave me a rare shock of pleasure. Here was a façade with something to say in a language that I happen to understand and love. The general proportions and the distribution of openings seemed absolutely right: the Corinthian order took my fancy – it has been carefully studied.’ Krier claimed that ‘if applied universally, Stamp’s criticisms would indeed have to condemn the majority of classical buildings in Cambridge and the world. It is that kind of moralistic radicalism that established and maintains Modernism’s intolerant reign.’ Stamp’s article, and the essays by Summerson and Krier, were reprinted for an American audience in the journal Progressive Architecture, in July 1988.”

Opposite Richmond House and overlooking Parker’s Piece is the University Arms, one of few hotels in Cambridge. Neoclassical architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki, the latter best known for fitting out The Ivy restaurants, revamped an existing Victorian and Edwardian building that had 1960s extensions. John Simpson really came to the public’s attention, or at least the coffee table magazine reading public’s attention, in 1991 with the house he designed for his parents. Ashfold House near Cuckfield, West Sussex, popped up absolutely everywhere from House + Garden to the Daily Mail Book of Home Plans. Clive Aslet lavished praise on the villa; his opening line in Country Life was, “Ashfold House is everyone’s dream. Later in the decade, Andreas Papadakis describes the building as, “A small country house, compact and practical for everyday use, but with the grace and proportions of an 18th century residence.” It is something of a reduced cross between Pell Wall Hall and Pitzhanger Manor given a cloak of Palladianism. University Arms, with its bulky new porte cochère bulging onto Regent Street, is definitely more on the Quinlan Terry end of the stylistic spectrum than the Caruso St John end.

The best place to take in a panorama of Cambridge, old and new and somewhere in between, is from the 360 degree viewing platform on top of the 800 year old tower of Great St Mary’s University Church. Immediately below the parapets are The Guildhall, King’s College and Chapel, Michaelhouse Centre and the Wren Library. Downing College blends afar into the honeyed blur of the city.

7 replies on “Downing College + University Arms Cambridge”

Great “tour” of this part of Cambridge. Not so sure about some of the modern neo buildings though. Perhaps some aging will make them in time look less garish.

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