Archive of the month: Manor Place Development
A burgeoning spate of building in the late 1950s and 1960s combined with an underdeveloped planning system led to new buildings which, although properly designed, could sometimes appear out of character.
At the behest of housing authorities millions of smaller dwellings were demolished over that period and, rather than being improved, were replaced by large schemes of redevelopment. By the mid 1960s the inherited character of many parts of towns and villages was seen to be at risk of disappearing, and the new concept of the conservation area was introduced through the Civic Amenities Act 1967, the aim being to protect them from destruction thereby preserving local historical, architectural or townscape character. The neighbourhood of King Street lay inside the Cambridge Central Conservation Area, the city’s historic core zone.
Comprehensive redevelopment by the local authority had been designated a few parts of Cambridge, and in 1966 Jesus College took advantage of the moment to approach the national Housing Corporation to create a housing society and redevelop the land that it owned between Jesus Lane and King Street. Set between boundary walls of extensive college premises, the street comprised shops, workshops, almshouses a school and several pubs. The King Street Housing Society, was chaired by Professor Sir Robert Jennings, a judge and sometime President of the International Court of Justice; its trustees included Sir Leslie Martin, Professor of Architecture at Cambridge. Both were Fellows of Jesus College, and the College took great pride in the Society’s founding and its provision of a new category of charitable housing. When completed this project would comprise Malcolm Place (1966-71) and Manor Place (1970-78).
The architect appointed was Ivor Smith, later joined by Cailey Hutton. Earlier, Smith had been a lead designer in the Park Hill flats in Sheffield, an enormous scheme of over nine hundred local authority flats, modernist and ‘brutalist’ in overall style and detail.
By 1970 King Street had already suffered an attack of something similar in the shape of Christ’s College’s New Court 1966-70 by Denys Lasdun, its north elevation receiving scathing criticism in the press also, even, by Prof. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner who described it as an ‘arrogant intrusion’.
Elsewhere in their 1972 Guide to Cambridge New Buildings critics Nicholas Taylor and Philip Booth highlighted the desirability for a relationship to exist between the ‘college’s needs and the relationship of these to the town community as a whole, by the aggressiveness and single-mindedness with which [the architect had] carried out the concept’. Might not the role of town planning help develop a relationship? So in King Street might the housing society’s proposed scheme for Manor Place be in similar vein? In 1972 Taylor and Booth had not been well disposed towards the recently completed Malcolm Place: albeit built in brick, Smith’s court behind the shops was ‘unconvincing’ and ‘dead’ whilst its south block presented a ‘harsh front to the street’. The architect was still a ‘long way from creating a satisfactory street frontage.’
Smith had argued for a high density for the final design. It consisted of four main blocks of flats, the southern pair facing onto King Street, the northern pair were three-stories set upon raised-up bases, deep in section below and narrower above.
A repeat was attempted for the three-storey southern block of Manor Place, though set at ground level.
But in comparison with the properties on the south side of King Street opposite the larger scale balconies and simplistic detailing of the proposals were completely different. Apart from matters of architectural design, what about the townscape character of the street as a whole which the Civic Amenities Act was expected to protect? In repeating the formula of the north block the proposal appeared insensible to anything other than itself.
In personal communication with the author, according to Nick Hellawell, a former conservation office for the City Council, the proposals were not to the liking of the City Council’s conservation and design team. Under the guidance of the principal architect-planner, Ian Purdy, and with evidence of Christ’s New Court building to hand, an approach was made to the Royal Fine Arts Commission in 1974.
The revised three-storey design which resulted is one that clearly reflects traditional buildings: at roof level attic windows acting as the smallest elements in a conscious composition; at first floor, a piano nobile of tall windows providing the dominant rhythm of the elevation, whilst below at ground floor level the large-scale element of bay windows forming a firm visual base.
Not only does this revised design differ from the strictly functional design of the other flats with their wide balconies and panels of floor-to ceiling glazing, but it also takes some account of the scale and fine-grained detailing of the historic buildings on the south side of the street. This is significant in that the revision shows as much a recognition of, and respect for, townscape cohesion and character as it does for traditional architectural grammar. Pevsner goes so far as to note that Manor Place ‘shows refinements’ over Malcolm Place.
More could be said about the design of south block of Manor Place: a rushed redesign to increase accommodation provision produced problems with its internal planning. But the twentieth-century redevelopments in King Street illustrate the variety of approaches taken by institutions with respect to residential accommodation in the city centre: Apart from Lasdun’s and Smith’s contributions to the townscape, the earliest change had been that of T.H. Lyon who had designed four-storey Garden Court for Sidney Sussex College, 1923-25, in a discrete Neo-Georgian style in brick, not unlike a country house, though heightened gracelessly in the ‘sixties; Christ’s College, 1964-70 by Denys Lasdun, and lastly Jesus College for the housing society, 1970-78. In terms of architectural style, we see a transition over half a century from an architecture that follows the grammar of a Georgian revival, to one that illustrates the ethic of individualism and stylistic brutalism, and lastly to the design of the south block of Manor Place where a fusion of tradition, townscape and context is evident in the resulting design. Even so, the north block of Manor Place, faced as it is with traditional brick, still reveals something of the monolithic, if not relentless, character of institutional housing. In this street the architecture of a reductionist ethic was seen to be an inadequate contribution to the urban scene.
This transition reflects a move to an awareness in the minds of citizens that a neighbourhood has a social as well as a visual dimension. On this particular site, 1974 might well be regarded as the year when such a turning point took place in Cambridge, albeit under the influence of a Royal Commission. But beyond the immediate focus on this particular part of the city, one remaining issue concerns scale when mass housing – a single land use - is maximised in the centres of towns and cities, often to standards that are minimal, albeit permitted by regulation. Traditionally, such centres are places are where the human spirit is naturally enriched by variety of use, by visual richness and by the immediacy of detail. These are qualities that need to be incorporated within the design process by both town planners and architects irrespective of any strict requirements for accommodation on the part of those who develop property, and they are qualities that involve the skills of urban conservators and designers: context is not simply visual, it is historical and social as well. Deprived of such qualities we come to inhabit a new form of deprivation. Might not this be what the nineteenth-century founders of the Institute of Architecture meant by that forgotten term ‘civic’?
This month's feature is written by guest writer Roger France, a retired lecturer in urban conservation and renewal and resident of Manor Place. The author gratefully acknowledges the help of Robert Athol and Dr Genny Silvanus, Archivists at Jesus College and Christ’s College Cambridge respectively, and the former for his layout design.