Cowan Court 6A, Chadwick Hall Henley Halebrown

University buildings, typologies and the picturesque

Rosamund Diamond

In the 1960s an unprecedented expansion in university education in the UK, in which the number of universities and their students more than doubled, lead to commissions for many new projects, some as entire campus's, others as organic additions. A generation of important university buildings represented a new age in which state funded higher education, associated with economic and cultural growth, was made accessible to the widest range of the population distinguished by ability. In the late twentieth century the funding stagnation in a different political climate, was accompanied by a dearth of important university architecture, with a few exceptions. Now as British universities, with exponential growth, have altered into commercial enterprises, and become significant contributers to local economies, their competitive pre-eminence is again being associated with their architectural quality. In this environment, Roehampton University was founded (2004), commissioned a masterplan, and constructed a new library and two student residential enclaves, and Churchill College (1960/64 footnote) has constructed a significant new residential building. Each has addressed their immediate loaded surroundings and wider social and typological contexts.

Henley Halebrown's Chadwick Hall student housing is part of Roehampton University's consolidation of its campus ensemble1. On London's south west edge, it was formed as the amalgamation of four adjacent teachers' training colleges2. 6A's Cowan Court, an addition to one of Cambridge's twentieth century Colleges, emerged from the current council's ambitious vision for a large addition to its undergraduate accommodation. The projects have evolved in contexts of significant modernist architectural developments and English landscape traditions, developed in their new college and social housing settings. Counter-intuitively, Roehampton presented a more challenging earlier historical context. Chadwick Hall's development has contended with a site partly constrained by the presence of an eighteenth century house and the remains of its garden, and a substantial area of steeply contoured ground, the extension of the adjacent parkland, on which the international modernist housing blocks of the old LCC social Alton West Estate (1959) stand adjacent. Cowan Court, development of sixty eight rooms of student accommodation, is juxtaposed with Churchill College's original Scandinavian modernist derived architecture3, with its park landscape.

The projects involve typological investigations simultaneously developing the relationship between architecture's social ethos and its forms. Cowan Court has engaged a study of the quadrangle and collegiate social culture. As a product of the site's complexities and Henley's interests, Chadwick which takes the form of three separate buildings with two hundred and ten single student rooms, combines two typological studies, of the 18th century English country house, and the 20th century apartment building. Both architects refer to 'Brutalism'. Churchill's original architectural form by Sheppard Robson and Partners (1960-64) whose horizontality is expressed in concrete floor slabs with brick walls, is described by 6A as 'Picturesque'. Henley Halebrown's scheme, picturesque in its composition, is a developed response to the unadorned masonry (brickwork) of the 18th century house with its horizontal stone bands, and the adjacent concrete framed slab blocks in the adjacent social housing. The concrete framed and predominantly loadbearing masonry construction of the Chadwick Hall buildings continues aspects of Henley's interpretation in his recently published book "Redefining Brutalism"4, in which a severe stylisation of the genre is replaced by its contextualisation.

Cowan Court: Typology of the quadrangle 

As a new college on a meadow site, remote from the University's central denser morphology, Churchill developed its own formal system. Ten courtyards of a typical Oxbridge college form, are grouped forming an estate like landscape with the college's main buildings, including the dining hall, at its centre. The overlapping residential blocks form ‘floating’ courtyards linked by main cloistered routes, established picturesque promenade qualities in the original College's ordering and landscape setting. Traditionally configured, the student rooms faced both outwards and inwards, with similar facades on both faces, their homogenisation accentuated by the horizontality of expressed concrete floor slabs. Cowan Court's footplate and three storey height matches the original courts. It stands apart from the original grouping, as an independent entity, differentiated by its closure, with a single entrance into its courtyard. It references the Oxbridge quadrangle and then develops an architecture of an essential form, an anthropology of the court. Historically and in Churchill's other courts, student rooms were vertically grouped around shared staircases. In the new version, the intended socialisation is of the whole residential community: three storeys of cloistered corridors surround the courtyard connecting all the rooms, all of which are outward facing, avoiding the surveillance of courtyard facing rooms in the typical college quadrangle. Two top-lit public staircases are the only concrete components in an otherwise entirely timber construction, structure and shell. In Cowan, the format of a formal, overlooked courtyard garden is replaced with a  landscape planted with a small woodland of birch trees, a 'natural' hortus conclusus in which to walk and socialise. 6A's intention was to give Cowan Court some social autonomy in the College, albeit with Churchill's typical resistance to communal gathering outside the college's main hall.

Unlike the horizontality of the original's expressed concrete slabs with brick walls which unified the courts into the larger homogenised college entity, Cowan Court's timber form and enclosure establish its unique autonomy.  The exterior is clad with dark recycled vertical oak boards, previously the decking on French freight trains, with repeating new oak windows, their regularity broken to suit internal layouts, like a Quaker construction. With its inflected facades pulling towards its centre, and its jettied projecting storeys (6A's reference to 15th century timber construction such as Paycockes House, Essex), Cowan, becomes like a low urbane palazzo. The new oak windows proud of the dark cladding are reminiscent of exaggerated stone surrounds. The etching of the timber boards at the top of the facades resembles sgraffito on plastered Renaissance villas. Inside, the courtyard's upper floors are lined with new oak ribbon windows as an expression of the cloisters' social intent.

Chadwick Hall: Typologies of the terraced house, country house, apartment block

"Modern buildings can and should, like the Brutalist architecture, point to a strong public life and a commitment to social values, and to an architecture of solidarity as well as individual sensation"5.

Chadwick Hall cites multiple overlain contexts of the Georgian Downshire House with the remains of its estate, the grand houses in the vicinity6, and the adjacent idealist residential tower blocks forming part of the LCC's Alton West estate As the third generation of a poetic landscape, the tightly composed ensemble responds compositionally to the old house and the fragments of its eighteenth century garden and landscaped park. The buildings at the ends of the existing house are described as 'domestic villas', their outlines faintly reminiscent of mansions, one with projecting wings, the other bays. The third building is a small apartment block with a 'T' shaped pinwheel plan set west into the rolling park with its dropping gradient. Two of the new buildings face the preserved formal sunken garden with its listed walls. One house sits on the renovated upper terrace like a fragment of a grander mansion in its landscape.

Chadwick is not derived from a singular typology. Its buildings are configured as two residential typologies to form students into social communities, clustering their rooms in groups of six to eight in the villas and upto twelve in the apartment block. Inside the four storey north villa adjacent to Roehampton Lane, with its lower wings, the student rooms are arranged into terraced houses. In the south villa, apartments are grouped around a grand house staircase. In the third, the apartment block, apartments are grouped laterally on its five storeys. A catalogue of communal domestic spaces arises from the development of the three building plans into autonomous units, substituting for the collegiate socialisation of earlier universitys. They include separate kitchen-dining and front sitting rooms in the terraces, larger 'parlours' in the south villa facing towards the sunken garden, corner living rooms in the 'T' block, overlooking the park.

The different forms are unified by rigorously consistent building, where multiple references are contained in a controlled, homogenised construction and material repertoire of concrete frames and loadbearing brick external walls. The expressed floor slabs, coloured tonally to the masonry walls, refer to the stone bands on Downshire House and its monolithic construction. The house blocks, use recogniseable villa components unadorned: simplified parlour bay windows, flush parapets and 'string coursing'. Three kinds of British domestic life are described. It is as if several elements of British architectural traditions have been assembled to converse as a multi generational family arguing over the same ground, whilst acknowledging that no one member can be entirely independent. Cowan Court and Chadwick Hall are strangely un-familiar. They fulfill categories of Henley's Brutalism, critically contextual in their readings of site, social programme and construction, with poetic readings of place.

1 Henley Halebrown (HHR) produced Roehampton University's masterplan. Chadwick Hall is sited just outside its campus
2 Roehampton University was formed from the amalgamation of four teacher training colleges founded in the 19th century which have remained semi autonomous, each with their own educational ethos.
3 Churchill College was designed by Sheppard Robson in 1959 as the result of a competition, and completed in 1968
4 Simon Henley "Redefining Brutalism", RIBA, 2017
5 Simon Henley, ibid
6 The wider context includes Grove House by James Wyatt 1792 on Roehampton University's campus with the fragments of a picturesque landscape with lakes, and the nearby remote Roehampton House by Thomas Archer 1710-12 extended by Edwin Lutyens 1910-13.

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