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.