North West Cambridge Utility Buildings
by Robin Lee Architecture
Client University of Cambridge
Awards RIBA East Award 2019 and RIBA National Award 2019
Sometimes it’s the really unpromising briefs that stimulate architects to their best creativity. That is certainly true of the Utility Buildings at Eddington. A collection of mostly engineering installations dotted around the extensive site, such as electrical transformer sub-stations and pumping stations requiring nothing more than a water-tight enclosure with some ventilation, there was not much for the architect to work with. Even the sports pavilions (one for cricket and one for football) were denied windows as the client brief only allowed rooflights.
With such a simple brief the architects could have been forgiven for creating utilitarian buildings that merged into the background. Instead they chose to treat them as stand-out pristine pieces, and, necessarily dotted around the new civic neighbourhood of Eddington, they have achieved the feel of being artworks in a sculpture park. The forms divide into two categories; the first, such as the electrical substations, have mono-pitch roofs and a clipped form that plays on a triangular aesthetic, and the second, such as the pavilion and canopy structures, have flat roofs and play on a rectangular aesthetic.
A very limited palate of forms and materials was used, beautifully detailed, that exploited each shape as an essay in proportion and geometry. The off-white brick, noticeably lighter than any other brick used in the wider development, gives each building a luminous prominence. Articulation of surfaces gives a modelling that augments and enhances the modular aesthetic, and the use of open mesh brickwork for a proportion of the ventilation openings gives an additional texture, used in panels, that similarly adds to the geometric aesthetic.
The result has touched a deep architectural nerve. The emotional effect of a transformer station feeling like sacred architecture is powerful and very impressive, elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Structural Engineer Arcadis