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Cambridge college is born again

Cowper Griffith Architects has completed a sympathetic and comprehensive redevelopment of Methodism's academic centre, Wesley House

Posted by Julian Owen | April 24, 2019 | Bricks & mortar

Cowper Griffith Architects has finished the redevelopment of Wesley House, rationalising accommodation and reproducing key facilities lost following a vast reduction in the size of the Cambridge college.

The scheme accommodates a broad range of new and upgraded high quality facilities, including: a new library (below), combined common and dining room, the retained chapel, seminar rooms, administration and staff accommodation, as well as new and refurbished student housing.

As part of a project to secure a long-term and sustainable future - repositioning itself as a postgraduate research institution, with a greater focus on attracting international students - Wesley House has reduced the scale of its accommodation to less than a third of its former size.

The highly constrained and sensitive site (it sits within the north-east part of the historic city centre), together with the close proximity of the listed college chapel, made this a challenging project.

Wesley House is the academic centre for the Wesleyan Methodist church in England. Built in1928, the buildings were designed by Maurice Webb in an arts and crafts style, taking inspiration from Morris, Ruskin and Lutyens. Consequently, Cowper Griffith’s approach to planning the new campus sought to respect both the spiritual and physical presence of the chapel as the heart of the Wesleyan community.

An early drawing by Webb showed an open courtyard onto Jesus Lane. When this was closed off in the 1960s, it left only a narrow opening for the public face of the college. The replacement spaces are designed to rectify this shortcoming, with the new library and shared dining/common room placed above the Porters’ lodge and facing onto the street to the south and court to the back; this forming of a bridge between the outer world and Wesleyan community is a metaphor for the broader work of the church.

Administration is placed in two 18th century buildings on Jesus Lane. The east range, with the chapel at its centre, is extended on the north-east corner. 15 new student rooms allow the student accommodation to continue to function as intended by Webb, with a new top-lit staircase opening off an existing entrance on to the court.

The design takes the form and materials of the original buildings, then strips them back with contemporary detailing, stone surrounds, and bronze casements. The Porters’ Lodge and gate for the college refers to the traditional form of other colleges in the city, as well as terminating the view down Malcolm Street on the opposite side of Jesus Lane. The design is slightly set back from the buildings either side and claimed to be “reticent” in character, “a reflection of the Wesleyan belief”.

The composition begins with a simple stone portal and gate, framed by a rusticated brickwork base and stone plinth. On the first floor, a bronze oriel window is offset at the south end of the library, a detail repeated on the north side into the court. The top floor common and dining room sits behind the top of the façade brickwork.

Westmorland slate, matching the original college buildings, is terminated with a cupola, providing lighting for the dining hall below. The ground floor entrance is carefully articulated as two separate spaces, quite different in character, building the tension of the entrance ‘journey’.

The first, an entrance to the general areas of the college, is framed by a beautiful oak bench with carved verse above, continuing Webb’s tradition of craftsmanship. The second, screened by etched glass doors, is designed with a stone apse opposite the porters’ window, subtly turning the focus towards the west end of the chapel in the court beyond.

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