architect_ 6a architects
location_ University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
project year_2008-2016
photography_ Johan Dehlin and David Grandorge

from the architects_

6a architects has completed Cowan Court at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. The 68-room hall of residence is the first completely new court to be built since the early years of the college, which was founded as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill in the ‘white heat of technology’ of the early 1960s. The original college buildings were designed by Sheppard Robson following one of the most important architectural competitions of the post-war period and in 2008, 6a won an international competition to add the new courtyard building.

The foundation of Churchill College pioneered both the radical expansion of university education and British architecture. Today the Grade II-listed college is one of the finest examples of English Brutalism in the UK. Half a century after the college was founded, Cowan Court turns the picturesque Brutalism of the original college towards the twenty-first century. 6a has transformed the raw sensuality of the original brick and board-marked concrete courts into an innovative, contemporary, low-energy timber building.

Cowan Court has three storeys, forming a square court with the same footprint as the existing courts in the college. In its overhanging floors, the jettying timber recalls the concrete bands across the facades of the existing courts, while its shadow measures the progress of the sun across the façade. Each of the facades is curved like the entasis of a classical column. The square windows of the student rooms spiral up and across, chasing around corners in playful misalignment.

Traditionally in Cambridge courts staircases serve and define vertical communities of rooms. In Cowan Court, cloisters perform that function, encouraging circulation towards a social space at the centre of the building, incorporating enclosed landscaped woodland. The rooms around the central cloister frame views outwards, towards Churchill’s extensive open playing fields and tree-lined landscape.

Cowan Court evokes many features of the original college buildings. The untreated reclaimed oak cladding echoes the textured board-marked concrete in the original college as well as the colour of its brick. New pale oak adds refinement to the lining of the cloister and the triple glazed windows. The bay windows, characteristic of the original student rooms, reappear as deep window seats held within the thickly insulated walls of the new building. Densely planted birch trees within the court shelter an informal garden for students to meet and study. The tree canopies give shade in summer, turning to yellow in autumn and opening to the sky in winter.

The materiality of Cowan Court forms part of an ambitious environmental strategy. Passive ventilation, triple glazing and super insulation reduce the amount of energy consumed both in construction and in use, while solar electricity and rainwater collection will lower the energy requirements even further.

Cowan Court’s DNA is firmly rooted in that of Churchill College and the University of Cambridge, adding another cell to its thriving college community while addressing the pressing environmental issues of our times. Cowan Court reflects this exceptional, progressive college, with its thirty-two Nobel Prize winners and the pioneering thinking of the next generation.

Cowan Court opened to students in October 2016.


Courtesy of 6a architects.