Standing in Homerton College’s new building one is reminded that there is something compelling about great roof volumes. Maybe, whilst enveloped in a high vaulted space, it is the simultaneous experience of being impressed by something beyond direct comprehension, whilst subconsciously aware of its technological skill and the presence of human crafting in its fabrication1.
Feilden Fowles’ project for Homerton consists of a new dining hall set into a network of supporting spaces, including an adjacent buttery or informal student café, a kitchen and back of house areas, and a reception space from a street entrance. The project presented a rare opportunity to design the most iconic College space, a free standing architectural entity representing the heart of its communal and ceremonial life. Its remaking consolidates Homerton’s incorporation into Cambridge University in 2010, as its largest Undergraduate College. Founded by nonconformist ministers in London in the eighteenth century, Homerton became a renowned teachers’ training college, located on the edge of Cambridge city centre, occupying the group of late nineteenth century buildings constructed for another College2. Its earliest are the Victorian Gothic revival ecclesiastical referenced Great Hall, and the more distinctive Arts and Crafts Ibberson building, providing the new project with some physical and ideological context. Whilst the new hall references some of its predecessors’ building elements and colours, its external appearance and spatial form are noticeably different.
The dining hall’s expressive character arises from its striking valley roof, formed from the slenderest of timber roof structures as the room’s upper volume, and its exterior loadbearing faience walls, on a pink pigmented in-situ concrete plinth. Its radical appearance promotes the College’s contemporary, less arcane institutional structure. A distinctive architecture has emerged from Feilden Fowles’ explicit low-tech ethos, which they describe as a practise of lower embodied carbon design, in which fewer material components are employed to work as efficiently as possible. Although Feilden Fowles have developed previous projects, emerging demonstrably from a low-tech approach, Homerton is by far the most complex in its conception and architectural outcome. In the dining hall, their interpretation of low-tech, could be identified in its structural form, explicit craftsmanship and social assembly. These translate into the three interdependent components of its roof, walls and base, which are equivalent to three of Gottfried Semper’s ‘Four Elements of Architecture’3, in which he acknowledged the inseparability of architectural form from its construction systems and material execution, simultaneously enabling enclosure to be notionally separated from structure. As a low-tech practise, Feilden Fowles (and other emerging practices) advocate ‘Lean building’, designing with a material and structural economy appropriate to an era of threatened resources. Their inclusion of digital modelling techniques to achieve it, reconciles a crafts based intuitive architecture (which has been referred to as ‘humanist’) with a technologically dominated version, the two, misconceived as styles, previously perceived to be in conflict.
The Hall’s character arises from the unity of the spatial form generated by its timber frame of sweet chestnut glulam butterfly trusses, supported on ground bearing timber columns. The whole is constructed as a lattice of trusses of equally sized members without a conventional hierarchy. The frame’s volume, soaring lightness, and the explicit craftmanship of its pegged timber jointing, contribute to the room’s open communal atmosphere. The inversion of the pitch simultaneously maintains the loftiness of the space, whilst detaching it from conventional associations, disrupting hierarchical institutional convention. It contrasts with the expression conveyed by Homerton’s old Great Hall with its traditional hammer beam roof structure.
The new hall’s dual informal and ceremonial functions are associated with distinct daytime and evening atmospheres characterised by its means of natural lighting. Untypically of Oxbridge Collegiate dining halls, the room’s south side is glazed at low level, opening views to the College lawn and woodland. Its clerestory glazing carried seemingly frameless upto the roof, contributes to the daytime lightness.
The substantive depth of the exterior walls counteracts the gravity defying lightness of the roof’s frame, constructing a tension between the heavy envelope and the vaulting roof, whilst making them structurally interpendent. The south wall’s stepped, scalloped profile, is formed from the loadbearing faience which tapers to fin like mullions between the clerestory glazing, the reduction in their tile size partly generated to reduce their thickness and weight. Its form and tonal variation recall Gothic cathedral buttressing, which in turn leads to an intuitive understanding of how the internal timber structure is braced by tying it back to the blockwork backing wall behind the faience. Alongside its folded profile, the ceramic patination of the green faience caused by its high glaze firing, generates a richly textured modulation. The facade cladding, a collaboration between the architects and one of the last UK manufacturers, Darwen Terracotta, is a further expression of ‘lean construction’ in which refined craft practice used skilled handwork to finish profiles efficiently generated by digital modelling
The faience walls are supported on a pink pigmented in-situ concrete base which also helps to brace the timber frame. The hefty column and beam system, set out on the three meter grid used to order the ground floor layout, provides a structural and social function. On the south facade, the depth created by the columns forms an inhabitable wall incorporating concrete benches for informal occupation. On the east, the columned zone forms a cloister, connecting the new hall complex to a ceremonial College route from the Ibberson Building, which continues on the interior, skirting the informal Buttery. By attaching it to the building’s exterior, as part of a latticed base, the cloister fragment reverses a more typical sequestrating collegiate trope.
The three meter grid derived from the Ibberson building, and Hans Van Der Laan’s St Benedictusberg Abbey Belgium, which Edmund Fowles visited whilst developing the design, transforms from a rational tectonic device, into an ordering system for the overall plan including transition spaces and connections with existing buildings, embedding the architecture with its social intent. The buttery with its first floor gallery, and the cloister which becomes a first floor cantilevered balcony, wrap the hall’s conventional formality with a casual spatial network to be loosely inhabited by students, outside the formalities of college dinners.
The hall’s informal and functional affiliated spaces, are described by a hierarchy of simplified glulam timber post and beam frames, delineating spaces where the architecture is a quiet backdrop to their use. They are reminiscent of several earlier Feilden Fowles projects, including their own studio and the Barn on the Waterloo City Farm site, where the forms were derived from ‘simple’ demountable timber structures constructed from a limited material repertoire, and carefully designed connections. The architects’ collaborations with the engineers Structure Workshop endorse the inseparable relationship between structure and space making. In their studio, Douglas fir beams span a single pitched roof form, pin jointed with flitch plates to make it simply demountable for re-use. The Barn’s spatial form and roof structure is based on a typical aisled agricultural building.
Homerton’s unconventionally composed new hall roof structure, has a methodological directness and lean approach derived from the earlier projects, albeit demanding a more complex technical resolution involving the building’s elaborated enclosure. Feilden Fowles are continuing to develop their aesthetic of low-tech in a larger scale public building for the National Railway Museum, York due for completion in 2025. The finely expressed roof structure over its main volume, the circular Central Hall, is composed from a radial timber tent like roof structure, with an inverted pitch meeting the perimeter, in combination with a steel ring beam and cruciform columns, with a clerestory window system which is also used for natural ventilation. In both cases, crafted lean construction results in sophisticated forms of enclosure.
1 In the english language, vaulting is both a construction term, and a description for reaching high, physically and metaphorically.
2 Cavendish which was not a full Cambridge College was founded in 1872 and dissolved in 1892
3 Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture, 1851, english translation: The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings. Trans. Harry F. Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann, 1989