Alumni architects in conversation: ‘Building the graduate community at Churchill’

2nd August 2017 in Alumni, News and Events, Women at Churchill

The College has secured permission to build 35 new units of graduate accommodation next to the Wolfson Flats. The buildings have been designed by Churchill alumni, Simon Tucker (U&G86) and Priscilla Fernandes (U04) of competition winners Cottrell & Vermuelen Architects. 

“The primary reason for being here is to study but there is a whole other life we have when are here that not only feeds your mind and what you’re studying and gives you a reference but it’s a time that you make friends for life and you have experiences that you don’t forget.”
— Herman Bondi, Master Churchill College 1983–1990

These were the sentiments expressed by previous Master of Churchill College, Herman Bondi, when he opened the award-winning Bondi, Broers and Hawthorne graduate houses (also known as the ‘Pepperpots’) in 2001. His words resonated with the chief architect of the project at the time, Churchill alumnus Simon Tucker (U&G86) from Cottrell & Vermeulen Architects and seventeen years on from the opening, the College is delighted to be working with Simon and this firm of architects again. Two of the new houses will echo the design of the Bondi, Broers and Hawthorne houses and be named after the two most recent Masters of Churchill College — Wallace and Boyd.

Why we need more graduate accommodation

The proportion of graduate students at Churchill has been increasing from its historical figure of a third with more students enrolling in one year MPhil courses as well as doctorates.

Comfortable, affordable and convenient on-site accommodation amongst an international community of students working across disciplines is what makes the graduate experience so special.

The College has been extending its on-site accommodation in stages since 2001 having identified that more rooms were urgently needed in order to meet the College’s key aim of accommodating all of its graduate students for a minimum of two years.

How can you help?

The vision

A competition to design new graduate housing was won by Cottrell & Vermeulen, where Simon is now a director. Simon has been joined at the firm by alumna Priscilla Fernandes (U04) who is a Project Architect for the new development. In conversation, Simon and Priscilla talk about their vision for the project:

Can you describe the project?

Priscilla: The brief for the competition was to design student housing for the graduate community. We were asked to design 35 rooms for 40 students. We looked at the site we were given and decided to build three houses to accommodate these rooms and there are five self-contained flats and 30 student bedrooms divided between three buildings

Can you describe your specific involvement in the project?

Simon: I was the lead architect on the Broers, Bondi and Hawthorne buildings 15 years ago. At the time, we were quite a small practice and it was a very significant project for us and very much a stepping stone for the practise onto bigger projects. It’s been a success as far as we know in terms of the way the College has used the building , we were very proud of them and the project won a number of awards locally and with RIBA. This new project was a real opportunity to re-visit some of the ideas we established in the first project as well as an opportunity to contribute to the architectural legacy of the College itself.

Can you describe the look and feel of the buildings?

Simon: The approach we took built on the ideas that we established with the Broers, Bondi & Hawthorne buildings (the Pepperpots) and extended that idea to create a campus within a campus for the graduate community — a place that was their territory within the whole college site. We were also interested in creating smaller, more manageable and sustainable communities.

We were very aware that for graduates it may be their first time in Cambridge, or the country, often with English as their second language. The idea of creating a smaller community was to foster social interactions to make it easier to make friends with other graduates. The new houses have built upon that and where the Broers, Bondi & Hawthorne buildings have 10 students per house, the new houses are designed to accommodate 5 students per floor and each floor has a communal room. So, we are trying to create smaller communities within a larger community and considering the whole site as a campus for the graduate community.

Priscilla: We took our influence from the architecture of the Churchill site as well as the surrounding area. For example, the concrete architecture of Sheppherd Robson on the main campus and the Arts & Crafts architecture on nearby Storey’s Way with its low sweeping tiled roofs that formed the influence for the Broers, Bondi & Hawthorne houses. For the new development we wanted to recreate this combination between concrete and red tiles but we also wanted to change it a little so it felt like a family of buildings with a slight difference. So, for example the Broers, Bondi & Hawthorne buildings have beautiful sweeping eyebrow details which we’ve now changed very slightly into a skirt detail for the new buildings, which also have eyebrows as well.

We’ve also looked at the surface treatment of the concrete. We originally had a smooth concrete finish on the Pepperpot campus and now we’re going for border marked concrete which is where you can now see the timber marking of the concrete when it’s shuttered. We also really love the copper roofs of the original College — you can see the green patina of the copper and how that has changed over time. That is something that we wanted to incorporate into the new building so we have a roof that is made of copper with an edge of copper that you will see on the façade and hopefully over time you will see that turn green like you can see on the original College.

What else is important about the project?

Simon: Landscape is a very important part of our approach as architects and very important in this project. The original scheme started with the idea of creating a cherry orchard in the middle of the site, and the houses were placed within that cherry orchard. The idea of extending that landscape is consistent with the idea of creating the larger campus so the same trees will be extended into the new site and the houses will be placed in and around those trees. It’s a slightly more constrained site and the landscape is slightly more specific in terms of creating more defined courtyards compared to the site occupied by the Broers, Bondi & Hawthorne.

The character of the landscape, which is really drawn from the character of the suburban houses around and some of the landscape of the College is really the glue that binds everything together. We worked with John Moore on the first scheme and we worked very closely with John again for this new scheme. Not only is he a very gifted designer but he is also the person who looks after these landscapes so for us as architects so it is a design we can leave in safe hands. Looking at the Broers, Bondi & Hawthorne houses today you can see how an idea takes 10 years to come to fruition and only really makes sense after that time.

What will the rooms be like for the students to live in?

Priscilla: When we started thinking about what the bedrooms, the flats and the communal rooms were going to be like, Simon and I talked a lot about our experience at Churchill and what we remembered. Not just the architecture but also our learning and social experiences. My favourite space in college was my room, it was my own personal haven, it was a place where I studied, it was a place where I relaxed and we were really lucky in College to have such lovely spacious rooms. I really enjoyed the contrast between the rest of the college and coming up a dark brick lined staircase into a really bright bedroom with bright walls and large bay window and warm timber floors and it’s all these elements that we really wanted to bring in to the new design.

So we’re pretty much stealing a lot of the ideas from the original College. We’ve got blonde oak floors, we’ve got a window seat with a large window with a beautiful terrazzo seat like the original bedrooms, there’s a lot of fitted joinery and we’ve worked really closely with the college to think about storage and what the students really need. And I think that’s really important it’s working closely with both the students and the College to understand and get it right and we’ve spent a lot of time drawing and re-drawing to really meet their brief and meet their requirements.

What do you think will make this particularly special/stand out?

Simon: I think for me this project is a completion of the first project. What will make this something extraordinary or remarkable is the creation of a really distinct graduate community within the College and really extending and improving on the ideas we had with the first project. Also, our learning process through the architecture we have created in the intervening years, our learning process in coming back, the extensive discussions we have had, and having Priscilla as another Churchillian to contribute her memories to the scheme all mean that I think we’ll make better buildings and create a landscape for the whole graduate community.


How can  you help?

The College needs to raise £3 million of the £5 million total cost to make this important project financially viable. Thanks to some major benefactions from alumni and friends of Churchill we have secured £2 million already but we need the help of our graduate alumni community to secure the final £1 million needed to go ahead with the project. Any gift or pledge made now will make a difference. From setting up a monthly gift of £10 to naming a house or room — every donation will help build the future of Churchill’s graduate community and leave a lasting legacy for generations of students to come.

Please visit the campaign webpages to watch the campaign video and find out more about the project or contact the Development office: development@chu.cam.ac.uk or T: 01223 331660.

Find out how you can help

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