6a architects have emerged as a leading architectural practice in the UK, with a particular reputation for working in sensitive historic environments and exemplifying a high level of craft in all their work.
Af Nina Tory-Henderson
In 2008, 6a won a competition for a new student residence within the Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. Built in 1959, the original buildings were a result of one of the most high-profile architecture competitions of its time, won by architect Sheppard Robson (against the likes of Alison and Peter Smithson). The 10 brick courts are now Grade II heritage-listed, remaining one of the most important examples of English Brutalism and a flagship project of the architect.
Cowan Court respectfully reinterprets Robson’s original design, an echo of its robust materiality and form. The new 68-room hall of residence mimics the floor plan of the existing courts – a solid square block punctured by a central courtyard. The cloisters that surround the internal courtyard act as the main circulation space, creating a social core. This inner sanctuary is given a special treatment, lined with light raw oak that contrasts with the rough, recycled timber cladding elsewhere. The courtyard is densely planted with birch trees, creating an inviting shared space where students can gather and study. The private rooms then turn themselves out to views over Churchill’s landscape, creating a clear distinction between communal and private life.
Robson’s original facades of brick and concrete are transferred into timber. Their board-marked concrete formwork is mirrored by the recycled-oak cladding, reading like an inversion or mold of the original. Its blackened finish matches the tones of the weathered brickwork; although easily read as a contemporary addition it somehow looks as if it has aged with its neighbors.
The box bay windows of the original courts are continued, but in reverse — flush with the façade and providing deep window seats within the thickly insulated walls.
Although directly informed by its brutalist counterparts, Cowan Court displays a sensitivity and softness that contrasts with the surrounding built fabric. The timber cladding, while speaking to the brick and concrete, provides a quality of warmth, unlike its antecedents. The sharp square form of the original courts is also subtly altered – each façade is slightly concave like the entasis of a classical column, only revealed when the sun’s direct light casts a shadow of its soft bow. While sitting comfortably amongst its rugged neighbors, there is a delicacy and tenderness to Cowan Court in its simple but refined materiality and detailing.
Cowan Court’s choice of materiality addresses the pressing environmental issues of our time, boasting an ambitious environmental strategy, using reclaimed timber, passive ventilation, triple glazed windows, a high-level of insulation as well as utilizing solar electricity and rainwater collection.
Cowan Court while in direct conversation with the surrounding college has its own contemporary voice – an innovative addition to the progressive college that was founded as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill in the ‘white heat of technology’ of the early 1960s.