HKPA in Cambridge


This walking tour takes in the Cambridge works of Howell Killick Partridge & Amis, some of the finest educational buildings of the 1960s. Bill Howell (1922-74), the partner in charge of HKPA’s Cambridge projects, trained at the Cambridge School of Architecture in 1946-8, returning in 1973 to replace Leslie Martin as head of school. We start at the Senior Combination Room at Downing College (1967-9), whose pedimented form reflects William Wilkins’s Greek Revival campus. The Cambridge University Centre (1964-7) is a feisty package of common rooms studded around a full-height hall. At Darwin College, we will be met by Dean Hawkes, an authority on the College’s architecture and a friend of Howell’s. After lunch in the Hall we will explore the residential Rayne building (both 1967-8), before concluding at Blundell Court at Sidney Sussex College (1967-9).

Survival of the fittest: HKPA’s ideas competition for Darwin College

Studying the drawings at HKPA’s archive last summer, I noticed this label on ‘roll 24’:


These, I discovered, are the drawings for HKPA’s in-house ideas competition for their additions to Darwin College, Cambridge (designed 1965-6, built 1967-8). It’s slightly ironic that while these have survived, the practice’s main set of drawings for the job appear to be missing (although Darwin retain a full set).

The base drawings – showing existing buildings – are dated 4 March 1965, so I suppose the competition was held a little after that date. Bill Howell mentioned an ‘office competition’ when presenting a revised scheme to the College in May. Most of the entrants had a go at the challenge of slotting a new dining hall into a narrow gap between the Hermitage (left on the photo below) and Newnam Terrace (right), ensuring privacy and security for those in the garden while maintaining visual connections between Newnham Road and the Backs. Here’s what got built:

Newnham Terrace

But not everyone took the brief so seriously:




The HKP Churchill Competition entry crossed with Ron Herron’s walking city! Another anonymous entrant tried their hand at a Gothic decorated shed (minus shed):


The competition was mentioned in Jill Lever’s 2002 interview with John Partridge for the National Life Stories Collection. [Lever ran HKPA’s practice library when they were based in 4 Fitzroy Square, and the interview is well worth a listen]:

 Jill Lever: The office was fun at that time […] there was a one-day competition, wasn’t there, when everyone was invited.

John Partridge: ‘that was for Darwin College, we had the job of the new dining hall at Darwin as well as redoing a bit of the Hermitage and a small bit of students’ accommodation. It wasn’t quite turning the corner […] but it was a problem of how to put a dining hall there and to get through to the garden which then went down to the side water of the Cam, and we discussed this and decided to have an office competition. I know I did one that was sort of rectangular with roof lighting. Did it in a morning, wasn’t very good! Everybody did one, I think, well most people, there were one or two who wouldn’t; even the secretaries did. It was great fun.




Acland Burghley

HKPA’s comprehensive school for the LCC at Tuffnell Park, North London was listed at Grade II yesterday. Here’s how it looked in April 1968..

The drawbridge-like entrance approach.
The concrete walls of the hall (left) with the ‘amphitheatre’ and teaching blocks beyond.
Boxed-out ‘acoustic windows’ and canted service panels
The multiangular assembly hall
Straight-on view of administration block.

‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part VI

The final instalment of Howell’s talk, first published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and made available here wby kind permission of RIBAJ. Previously on HKPA allsorts: parts one, two, three, four, five. GF

*                                *                                 *       

When structure is used visibly throughout a building, any discussion of architectural form must involve a discussion of the form of the structure. Of course, most buildings don’t have a clear and visible one anyway – the relevant bits are formally confused with other irrelevant bits, or are buried or disguised. But to analyse building form without analysing the structural form is like a running commentary on a Miss World contest as opposed to an anatomy lesson.

This is not to imply that we believe architectural form should consist of whatever morass of cells is produced by the interaction of the requirements of the programme and the characteristics of the structural system. The Crystal Palace was based on an additive system of small parts, making up relatively small sets, ie, bays. These added up to a prism of extreme overall simplicity (the simpler the earlier the design you look at). This can be described in terms of external and internal volume, but to comprehend the gestalt you must also comprehend the parts and how the sum of those parts produces the simple whole. It is interesting in this connection to note how comparatively rarely in publications or school projects is one given a ceiling plan. A ground plan of the Crystal Palace will tell you what you can walk about on but will give you little idea of what is above your head.

Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew

we derive nourishment and inspiration less and less from art and architecture, and more and more from industrial plant, space modules, vehicles of all sorts ancient and modern, crystal structures, native villages, biological forms…

I have indicated that I feel dissatisfied with so much art–based formal analysis; this is basically because I feel that, for architects, Art is the Trap. Don’t get me wrong. We are visual chaps, we are involved with form, light, colour, texture and images. So we all love art. Some of my best friends are artists. But most of the influence of art movements on architecture in this century seems to me to have been baneful. Corb’s early houses are not machines for living in so much as cubist artworks for living in: super, of course, significant and influential, but not machines – which, I agree with him, is what we are trying to make. So we derive nourishment and inspiration less and less from art and architecture, and more and more from industrial plant, space modules, vehicles of all sorts ancient and modern, crystal structures, native villages, biological forms, and so on. We turn to these because they are structural assemblies of bits; studying them helps us to understand this our problem.

We all hope that what we do is valid for its context in time. But where will it end and why? Suppose we or our successors continue to like vertebrate, explicit buildings: will we or they be able to go on doing them? Will they be forced to admit one day that this can no longer validly be done, or will they give up wanting to do so? Are we the last of the dinosaurs?

I don’t want to end on a note of pessimism and gloom like some dwarf lurking miserably in the corner of a Watteau pastorale, knowing it can’t last. But it isn’t gloomy to face change, or to accept that what can be done and is willed to be done by your own generation wiIl be impossible or seem irrelevant to another. WiIl future ages find the sort of approach I have outlined impossible – or just irrelevant? Remember, it does not depend on a given technology – it has existed from the bronze age to Nervi.

Why will they not build as we do in 50 years’ time? Economics and the loss of certain skills and materials, yes. New materials will arrive with new capabilities. But basically it will be because desires and visions change, and what we do will not be wanted because it will have become history. But does this necessarily mean no more vertebrate structures? We think it likely that, whatever people build with, there will always be a stream of architecture that concerns itself with enclosing people and their activities with palpable structure. You may well be asking why. Why show structure? Why bother? Why pay for it? It’s not easy to answer. Can any of us be really honest about why we do anything?

We do it, surely, because we like it. We do it because we are trying to make buildings that wiIl create in others the response we have experienced in the buildings we admire. It doesn’t mean we hate or despise everything else – it’s just different. There is a range of choice (just, despite the general downward trend of building budgets) and, within the range of choice available, we tend to go for solutions which communicate how they work. This is our thing. We hope we are not one–track minded. We have designed big buildings and little buildings, cheap buildings and less cheap buildings, multicellular and continuum buildings, concrete buildings, brick buildings, steel buildings, timber buildings and any combination of all four. We have designed in relatively advanced techniques and peasant techniques. We have designed buildings clad by skin systems outside and in, and we have designed buildings whose internal space is articulated by manifest structure. It is this last category that I think we enjoy doing most, because we think that such buildings satisfy some basic human instinct.

Why do all our aunts love beamy cottages? Why does everyone go mad the first time they step into King’s College chapel? Why do all architects turn on to Japanese houses? Why do we all love old boats and airplanes? Why do we weep for the Crystal Palace? Why does Mackintosh’s art school never disappoint nor Berlage’s stock exchange in Amsterdam? Why do we all applaud Perret even though all his buildings are straitjacketed in Beaux Arts symmetry? Why are the early Herts schools still among the most exciting postwar buildings? Why do we all root for Bucky Fuller’s domes despite their somewhat limited application? Why are tents and greenhouses always super? Because, we submit, they are structures; and somewhere, deep down, all God’s chillun love structures. An American lady recently wrote a book about Oxford called Beware, these ruins are inhabited. If you like what we like, come and join us – these structures are inhabited.

‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part V

The penultimate part. This article was originally a talk delivered at the RIBA, published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and made available on the interweb with the kind permission of the wonderful Hugh Pearman of RIBAJ. Previously on HKPA allsorts: parts one, two, three, four. GF

*                                *                                 *       

When I plumped for the simple Anglo Saxon of one–way and two–way I mentioned that there were also structures that were many–way. One of the most intriguing exercises in structural anatomy is the evolution of such a structure from linear and planar elements. In the building we designed some years ago at Birmingham University with Harris & Sutherland, we grouped studies round a circular well which culminates in a dome made up from straight joists and flat woodwool slabs.

Our Young Vic Theatre, now going up near Its parent body and designed with Samuely’s, is a very cheap essay in the early German Gasworks style. The roof is an interplay between one–way and two–way anatomy – basic external trusses spanning in the direction of the projecting stage and holding up an internal lattice of secondary support and bracing. Being a limited-life building, we were allowed not to encase the primary structure, provided It was outside the fire enclosure, which leaves the primary structure as the main feature outside and the secondary structure articulating the ceiling inside.

The Young Vic Theatre: reflected ceiling plan
The Young Vic Theatre: reflected ceiling plan

young vic elevation

Before leaving one and two–way structures, perhaps I could return for a moment to ancient history. Early Christian basilicas, and after them Romanesque barrel vaults, were one-way linear directional – extrusions, if you like. At Vezeley we see two–way vaults superimposed on what is still basically a one–way primary structure – walls parallel to the nave and arches across it. The Gothic breakthrough was the invention of a workable two-way system (a combined structural and aesthetic system) for stone vaulting. The pointed arch was vital to enable a system with a consistent aesthetic to spar non–square bays, thereby making possible aisles and naves of different widths.

Of course, we wouldn’t do what we do if […] we weren’t rather pleased not to give a sod for good taste

The illustrated examples of buildings we have done with manifest structure articulating the interior space are all fairly large buildings, but in small (ie, domestic) scaled examples, the same thinking can apply. We think it is this which motivates our tendency to display materials in their primary state, rather than a desire for cosiness, or a love of rough textures per se, or an urge to epater le bourgeois, or a Luddite attitude to technological progress, or a glorification of the era of austerity building budgets. Of course, we wouldn’t do what we do if we didn’t rather like grotty textures, if we did not decide it was better to learn to love breeze blocks rather than spend one’s life pining for gold mosaic, or if we weren’t rather pleased not to give a sod for good taste. But basically what we think we are doing is designing buildings which communicate what they are – but not buildings which moralise. I have deliberately held off talking about structural truth or honesty. Truth, after all, has many faces, as we can see after any road accident, and soon leads us into peril in the case of concrete structures – however much we display our compression members, we sincerely hope never to display our tension members.

after all, there’s a world of difference between a chap who likes displaying his biceps and one who walks round with his fly zip undone

We are often asked if it is not inconsistent that we do not feel the same urge to communicate our services. We flog our poor structural engineering friends into designing things which must all be seen, and at the same time drive our services engineering friends mad by insisting that all their efforts be invisible: I like living in a structure and surrounding myself with entertaining artefacts, but I’m not really convinced that a soil pipe is one I would choose to live with. Services clobber can get as out of hand in the home as kerbside clobber in the urban environment. We want the well–tempered environment, but would prefer it, by and large, to come about, as it were, by magic. Displaying structure and concealing plumbing is not really all that inconsistent – after all, there’s a world of difference between a chap who likes displaying his biceps and one who walks round with his fly zip undone.

One of the great occupational hazards of this approach to structure in architecture is what we call the World’s Smallest Forth Bridge syndrome. I’m sure any engineer will know exactly what I mean, The architect, faced with spanning 15ft, comes along with a marvellous diagram and says, ‘Well, I thought just a simple two–way, three dimensional, precast, post–tensioned etc. etc.’ and the engineer, after sucking his pencil for a few minutes says, ‘Or some 7in Bison planks.’ Or the architect appears with a marvellous multifaceted bent form , and the engineer says, ‘Oh, yes, we could do that: but we could do something that looked exactly the same for a tenth of the cost if we slapped a couple of RSJs across, and you then hung your shape underneath in hardboard.’ Very irritating, of course, but it is the sort of wet–blanketing that the engineer must indulge In from time to time when the architect’s passion for playing at engineers gets out of hand. Engineers sometimes think architects a bit mad if they use anything but the cheapest solution. This is also unreasonable. We have a certain budget to spend; If we spend more on the structure then it can’t be spent elsewhere. But perhaps by spending a bit more on the structure, we may not need a whole lot of interior decoration, or by going for a fairly elaborate finish on the columns , for instance, we can save having to cover them up with mosaic. An engineer is like a dietician – he can tell you the minimum you need to get by, but this may not be a very desirable meal; and he can tell you that too much may do you no good; but it is his successful collaboration with an architect that not only keeps you alive but produces –the cordon bleu result.

‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part III

Part three of Bill Howell’s 1970 talk, originally published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and reproduced with the kind permission of RIBAJ. The second part can be found here. GF

*                                *                                 *

I want now to consider for a few moments what is involved architecturally in the choice of a structure. Most buildings consist of a set of flat floors, held up in space and forming the ceilings of the rooms below, which need to be supported at certain intervals by walls or columns or both. These supports can hold up a flat slab or one differentiated into deeper and shallower elements, this being usually a more economic solution. The elements that go to make up the slab will be either linear or planar. True planar elements can only be made up out of an isotropic material (one with the same properties in all directions): for instance, concrete, plywood or steel plate. In many structural systems there will be a hierarchy of differentiated members – boards on joists on beams, say, each successive group being laid counter to the one below.

The choice of a system will be influenced by a number of factors – eg, the requirements of the cellular subdivision of the building, and the impingement, if any, of the partitioning on’ the structure, and of the services. Should the architect wish to display the hierarchy of parts of which the structure consists, then he must decide whether or not the building is one where a linear, directional arrangement is appropriate or not. It may be so – say, in the case of offices ranged either side of a linear internal route. If, however, the architect decides that the spaces in the building, or the relationship of the building to its site, make a directional structure inappropriate, then it will be necessary to devise a system with equal, or at any rate similar, characteristics in two directions.

Curiously enough, we do not have, as far as I know, convenient accepted terms for describing these types of structural anatomy. I have battered my brains and my dictionary, also several dons and one classicist vicar, in an attempt to dig up an appropriate set of terms. The vicar jumped straight in and said ‘Quite simple: monothreptic and diathreptic – growing in one direction and growing in two directions’. Now I know engineers are well educated chaps, but I can just imagine saying down the telephone, ‘Well, actually I thought the beam arrangement ought to be more, well, kind of diathreptic, you know.’ So let us avoid being too fancy, and stick to Anglo Saxon three–letter words, and talk about one–way and two–way structures – and, I suppose, three–way and many way structures.

One-way structure
One-way structure

A one–way structure is one whose basic set of parts has certain characteristics in one direction and different ones in the other, and which therefore adds together with its sideways neighbours in a different way from a neighbour fore and aft. The two–way structure has a basic set whose characteristics are the same along the x and the y axis , though it need not actually be square; it can be distorted into a rectangle and still have the same characteristics, though not the same dimensions, along the two axes. It will abut similar neighbours in the same way on all sides.

‘Well, actually I thought the beam arrangement ought to be more, well, kind of diathreptic, you know.’

Two-way structure
Two-way structure

This will have little architectural significance if the structure will in due course disappear from view. Indeed, a one–way structure may be clad with a suspended ceiling of square (ie, two-way) acoustic tiles, which may relate to a two–way grid of moveable partitions. If the structural form is going to remain on show, however, it becomes the architectural form, and the choice of a one or two–way structure is an important decision. For instance, the building may be sited on a corner. A two–way anatomy goes round a corner, one might say, automatically, but when a one–way structure comes to a corner, all it can do is stop. You can then start next to it, running along the other street another one–way structure. They become neighbouring one-way structures, with or without a gap between them.

If the external anatomy of the building bears some relationship to the structural happenings within, it is likely that the external form of the building will bear a similar relationship to the two streets if there is a two–way structure: but probably a one-way structure will present, literally, a different face to the two streets. This may be entirely appropriate, since one street may be much less important than the other. But often it is entirely unjustified, and results in all those thoughtless blank–ended matchboxes we see at the junction of two equivalent thoroughfares. This corner problem illustrates how in our view the choice of a structural system relates even to the town–planning context of a building. While thinking about structural economy, the relationship of internal partitioning to downstanding beams, the relationship of cladding to the structure, and so on, you are taking decisions which affect the relationship of the anatomy of the building to its site and to its neighbours.

As well as choosing between a one-way and a two–way structural system, the architect must decide on the location of his columns in relation to the enclosing skin of the building. The columns can be outside the skin or in the line of the wall, or the whole column can be inside the building. Columns in the line of the wall cause all those well–known problems of cold bridges and tolerances, creating a sort of hiccough in the planning grid, and perhaps of ending up rather lost , if not entirely so, both from inside and out, because the thickness of a column and a wall these days are often not dissimilar. We have always had a sneaking regard for columns set within the space (ie, inside the enclosing skin), provided this can be done without sterilising useful space, because if the intention is to create an architecture whose form consists of structural enclosures, these become even more apparent and communicative if you are living with your support system; they create that room within a room effect, of which John Soane was the pastmaster.

‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part II

Here’s the second installment of Bill Howell’s 1970 talk, originally published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and reproduced with the kind permission of RIBAJ. The first part can be found here. GF

*                                *                                 *             

Before glancing at the Renaissance, let me cease to be insular and look back at Greece and Rome. Greek temples when in use, tended to have somewhat perfunctory and ill–lit interiors where the kind of sophisticated architectural use of structural forms we see on the outside played little part. As we see them now, of course, exploded (literally in one case) and eroded by the elements, the local inhabitants and acquisitive peers, they have become stark structural enclosures of space, Stonehenge–fashion, and as such are the most moving and satisfying artefacts – but in a way never envisaged by their designers.

Roman engineering is, of course, all Structure, and where it enclosed space, it did so in a highly vertebrate manner. A lot of surviving Roman interiors have had their architecture removed by generations of popes and other predators. and to us are all the better for it. They too have become structural enclosure – of a kind not envisaged by their designers, but very splendid to those of us who like being enclosed by engineering. To paraphrase the immortal bard, Roman building’s much improved once it’s had its tiles removed.

“Roman building’s much improved once it’s had its tiles removed”.

Interior renaissance architecture, at any scale other than the small domestic, consisted of space articulated by structural forms. They were, very often, fictive structural forms: ie, the column, the pilaster and the entablature were used as a set of images to define the enclosure of the space, but were not always – indeed not often – its actual structural system. Using the word ‘fictive’, rather than ‘false’ or ‘phoney’ as the architectural moralists did , enables us to see why we can enjoy and admire this sort of architecture even though one may be a vertebrate to the backbone. One can enjoy fiction as well as enjoying real life. The baroque is not just fiction – it is poetic drama: if you don’t like this, you won’t like opera. Its forms are not only non–structural but often anti–structural – and deliberately so. In its religious application. it sought to create an other–worldly enclosure that did not just conquer gravity but looked as if it had actually freed itself from gravity. (Ronchamp, still to me the one really magical modern building, is anti–structural in just this way.)

Baroque space is articulated by fictive structure — actual structure is not part of the message.
Baroque space is articulated by fictive structure — actual structure is not part of the message.

When Gothic forms returned to supplement late renaissance ones, they appeared first as fictive Gothic – a system of articulation of interior space pretty remote from Gothic engineering. It was of course, the ‘hard’ Gothic boys who wanted to do what we like doing – enclosing the space by actual structural engineering (I assume they chose the title, thereby leaving their adversaries no alternative but to be ‘soft’).

And even more than the hard Victorian architects, the cast–iron men enclosed space with structural devices, as demonstrated at the Palm House at Kew, at Paddington Station , at the Oxford Museum, or at the late lamented Coal Exchange, and in the great mills and tiny pissoirs and bandstands. Japanese architecture, ancient and modern, appeals to us largely because it consists of an integration of a system of structural members with the planning system of the whole interior.

Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Japanese architecture
Japanese architecture

In the early days of the modern movement, there was a lot of talk about ‘structural honesty’ and ‘expressing the structure’, but curiously enough this seldom took place in the interior. For example, consider Corb’s Maison Domino, the most perfect ideogram of structure as a basis for the new architecture. But turn it from an ideogram into a building, from a structure into an enclosure, and what do you get? Indeed, what did result in the houses of the period? Usually an interior enclosed by plain walls, uncommunicative of whether they were support elements or not, a plain flat lid, and here and there a white column (or could it be a pipe duct? – which, as we all know, in one celebrated case it was).


When my partners and I were students after the Second World War, the first buildings to fire our imagination were the Hertfordshire schools; they had all the beauty of a simple but sophisticated child’s toy which built up into a series of habitable cubes defined by square columns and lattice beams – out of the Japanese house by Meccano Ltd. Their interiors were gay and friendly and appropriate to the junior citizens who inhabited them, like an assembly of space–age Wendy houses. Of course there were unsolved problems. The grid was too large to be flexible enough. The fibrous plaster column casings looked (as indeed they were) soft. There wasn’t anywhere to put the services. The lattice beams led to problems where partitions came up to the ceiling.

In the early Hertfordshire schools, space is articulated by the actual structural system
In the early Hertfordshire schools, space is articulated by the actual structural system

The outcome was the 3ft 4in grid system pioneered by Bruce Martin, which has proved to be the ancestor of so many subsequent schools systems – the deep floor with suspended ceilings to house services, and the randomly placed columns avoiding partitioning and cladding: the Maison Domino came to life. Dry–built, clean, taut, springy. Even when clad and filled with its clip–together shiny partitions, it retained this exciting feeling of brittle tension and elegance. But something had gone. We thought back to the beautiful silver frame sitting in the field, and longed for it not to have been tidied away. It anticipated the interiors of so many buildings today a world enclosed by acoustic tiles above us and wallboard around us. The wonders of technology have brought us to a world of wallpaper. The principal lesson of Hunstanton was that here was a building that looked marvellous as an unclad frame and also looked marvellous when clad and enclosed – indeed, it looked much the same, because there, both inside and out, was the frame. We are all too familiar with that moment when, with most buildings, the structural engineering is finished and the architecture starts going on, and you know it’s over the hump and will never look good again.