23 September 2021
The desirability of building a new residential block at Emmanuel was under discussion as early as 1955, for the college was contemplating an increase in student admissions.
There was quick agreement that the only feasible site was the garden of 55 St Andrew’s Street, combined with a degree of encroachment on Chapman’s Garden, but it was to be more than eight years before construction got under way. The problem was the perennial one, of finding a design that reconciled ‘the two building virtues of Architecture and Economy’, as one of the architects involved put it. The Master of Emmanuel, Edward Welbourne, wrote in 1959, that the college was leaning increasingly ‘towards a more orthodox building tho’ it had originally wanted to house as many men as cheaply as possible’, but, in fact, money remained a crucial factor throughout the years of debate.
The first architects to be approached were Robert Hurd and Ian Begg, who were at that time working on the new college Kitchen. Hurd suggested that a ten–storey tower block could be a solution, which, while being ‘unorthdox, perhaps’, would not, he avowed, dominate aesthetically the adjacent buildings. The college disagreed, and stipulated that the new block should stand only three, or three and a half, storeys high. Hurd and Begg submitted several designs in 1958 and 1959, frequently changing both the alignment and appearance of the proposed building, in an attempt to meet the requirements of Emma’s Governing Body, but the college was not entirely satisfied with any of the proposals, and the project was shelved for a time. (Above L: Designs by Hurd & Begg, 1958)
In November 1960, it was decided to commission new drawings from two London–based architects. One of the firms chosen, Gollins Melvin Ward, believed that they could meet the challenge of designing a structure that would not only deliver the required number of rooms, but also ‘harmonize with the existing buildings without introducing a conflicting element and at the same time retain its own individual character’. Perhaps anticipating some scepticism as to whether their proposed Modernist vision would in fact achieve this harmony, they assured the college that the ‘strongly modelled plan shapes of the individual units combine to produce an informal overall plan which, with the broken skyline, would enhance the regularity of the existing buildings’. (Above R: Designs by Gollins Melvin Ward, 1961)
The other firm invited to submit designs was McMorran and Whitby, whose trademark style of ‘progressive classicism’, as it has been called, was unfashionable at the time, but now has many admirers. In their view, ‘a successful design should do more than provide the required accommodation in convenient form; it should preserve and enhance the valuable elements in the existing layout and create new features of a quality unquestionable in the future’. Their proposals for a new ‘Library Court’ met with the approval of the Bursar and some of his colleagues, but in the end neither their designs, nor those of Gollins Melvin Ward, were accepted, for it was felt that both schemes represented an unacceptably high expenditure ‘per person housed’. (Above L: Design by McMorran & Whitby)
A fourth firm of architects was then consulted: Bird and Tyler of Cambridge, who had recently designed Barnwell Hostel. Tyler proposed an irregular U–shaped block featuring an elevated intersecting wing, but his designs, submitted in May 1962, were also rejected as too expensive, the college evidently having decided that where student accommodation was concerned, Economy definitely trumped Architecture. (R: Design by Bird & Tyler)
In some desperation, the Governing Body turned next to the architect of the new Master’s Lodge, Tom Hancock, who quickly produced a set of plans which, after some tweaking to satisfy the college’s myriad requirements, received formal approval in the summer of 1963. South Court, as Hancock’s new block was named, certainly has its detractors, but it may be felt, upon considering some of the rejected designs, that while the building could perhaps have been better, it could also have been a lot worse.
Amanda Goode, College ArchivistBack to All Blog Posts