Caruso St John Architects

Location: Cambridge, UK
Client: Downing College
Project Status: Built

This project for a new gallery for Downing College has transformed a complex and unsatisfactory situation at the entrance of the College. With the transformation of the entrance to Parker’s House student accommodation, a previously private service yard has been transformed into a new public space, First Court, whilst a modest maintenance building has been transformed into a new public art gallery.

The entrances to the two buildings are framed by generous glazed screens that are made in oak, and each foyer has lots of natural light and is furnished so that one can rest or wait for a friend before continuing on. The intimate outdoor space is carefully enclosed by a low wall made with reclaimed Cambridge stock bricks and paved in roman concrete that turns up at its edges to form both a foundation for the brick walls and a continuous seat. Combined with its oak benches and trees, exotic versions of indigenous species, these features mark First Court as a place not just for passing through but also for lingering, and even for celebrations, during an opening at the Gallery or when Shakespeare is playing in the East Lodge Garden. 

We thought a lot about Kettle’s Yard when working on the design for the Gallery and its adjacent spaces. The transformation of Jim Ede’s old house illustrates the possibility of a modest structure coexisting with the grand architecture of the Colleges and housing a space where study, conversation and art naturally come together. This modesty and feeling of easy access is about an intimacy in scale, and is also about building in a certain way. The Heong Gallery is made with timber: natural oak for the windows, doors and furniture, and painted boards for the ceiling. These materials are complemented by a floor in encaustic tiles of a type which has been made in Ironbridge since the early 19th century, and is dark and absorptive, hard and precise, betraying its industrial origins. The single long roof light, and a few windows connecting the interiors to the East Lodge Garden and First Court, ensure that the gallery has good natural light. Our intention has been to make a place that is equally comfortable for people as it is for art.