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Hugh Pearman

MUMA's successful Whitworth approach travels to add civic presence to North West Cambridge

The little rattly blue bus starts off quite full outside Cambridge railway station, destination Eddington. I’m sitting right at the front. As our round-the-houses journey proceeds, clumps of passengers disembark at various colleges, faculties, research buildings and residential areas. Finally the bus enters an enormous half-finished building site. We stop outside a Sainsbury’s as the rain lashes down. I turn round and look back down the bus. Nobody left on board, but for me and the driver. The new township of North West Cambridge is still a work in progress. But it contains one of the best new buildings I’ve seen for quite a while. One that fully understands its civic duty.

The resulting complex shies away from ostentation, but has considerable presence

Stuart McKnight materialises, under an umbrella, cheerfully undaunted by the climatic conditions. The building – community centre plus nursery school – is by MUMA, best known to date for its 2015 Stirling Prize-shortlisted Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, an extension/refurb project won in competition that not only cemented the name of the practice but also helped catapault the gallery’s then director Maria Balshaw to the top job at the Tate in London. Gillian McInnes, Simon Usher and McKnight (the MUM of the practice name) are a group of Mackintosh school-trained architects, one-time staffers and later collaborators with Michael Wilford, who set up their practice in 2000.  They take the craft and technology of architecture very seriously indeed, as was clear from the Whitworth: the combined community centre and nursery here in Cambridge carries over some of the same ideas into an all-newbuild project. Fastidious, that’s the word for them. In a good way.

Faced with a flattish green field (this was Green Belt land sacrificed by Cambridge as part of its expansion as a stealth new town), how do you find context? MUMA had a masterplan by AECOM to work to – one that it managed to tweak quite a bit. First it slightly rotated its building off the masterplan grid so as to make more gathering-space back from the street edge where its building adjoins Marks Barfield’s circular primary school, completed earlier. This also gives the complex more of a presence when seen from the market square opposite: instead of looking face-on at just one elevation, you see the depth of the building. Then the firm found just enough of a gradient in the land to be able to build up to a shallow terrace in front of the community centre, a bit of a plinth, so helping to define it. Finally it went higher than originally envisaged, breaking through a notional 10m height limit up to 16m. 

Now come the references. Academic Cambridge is all about the combination of relatively tall buildings (chapels, dining halls) with courts. McKnight relates how MUMA kept on coming back to this. Why not build something with a bit of the loftiness of King’s College chapel?  Why not refer back to the monastic origins of the university by arranging the nursery school round a cloister containing playground and garden?  And why not combine these two forms, the chapel and the court, the former public, the latter largely private? 


The resulting complex shies away from ostentation, but has considerable presence in its creamy-pinkish brick (pale brick is shared by many of the buildings here in North West Cambridge, itself a reference to much of the brick in the historic city). But nobody textures it quite so richly as MUMA, inside and out. This is more Denmark than Cambridge.  

The community centre is much more than a hall. It is a fairly sophisticated multi-purpose theatre, naturally ventilated, its largest 200-person hall a double cube with a naturally long reverberation time which is then damped down as necessary by electrically-operated acoustic blinds and curtains. From outside it is an incised brick box with one tall vertical window on its west, town-facing elevation, long high-level horizontal ones on its main flanks, and a ground level window looking out across the preserved fieldscape.  Near the entrance is a prominent flush-set stainless steel downpipe, and above it a notch cut in the roofline from which issues a water spout.


This is MUMA’s way of guarding against drainage blockages: if the system blocks, the water will simply cascade from the spout, so alerting everyone. Such a humdrum thing, given the high architectural treatment. As at the Whitworth, long carved benches are built into the walls of both community centre and nursery school – either in Purbeck limestone or (in the nursery school) terrazzo. The same limestone is used for flooring in the community centre.

Externally the brick is subtly patterned in strata of stretcher and soldier courses, and becomes perforated at the top: an expression of the natural ventilation/cooling strategy. This was tricky: air is drawn in through a ‘sunburst’ grille in a diaphragm wall in a little courtyard at the rear, and travels through a basement labyrinth to be cooled by the ground before rising by stack effect to be expelled at roof level – but it is all done while also being damped down by thick acoustically-absorbent surfaces to ensure no sound penetrates the envelope in either direction. Sound and air move in different ways so this was a delicate balancing act between the services and acoustics consultants. 


Inside the main hall, the brick ends are textured for acoustic diffusion – as are the timber flanking panels at floor level. Seating can be arranged in various ways and shunted away beneath the gallery. Structurally it is a delicate arrangement of laminated portal frames braced at one point between floor and timber-grid ceiling, above which is a technical level plus acoustically-damped exhaust air plenum. From the gallery rises a very architectural double-curved plywood spiral stair (though with a steel newel clad in timber). It’s very tight, intended only for technical access, but expressed as an architectural foil to the rectilinearity of the chamber. 

There are two smaller community rooms as well, plus a kitchen/bar: this is a place that can cater for most things from a chamber music recital or an amplified rock event to a wedding. The attached nursery school is a very different proposition. It is simple – single-storey round a courtyard – but done with the same attention to detail. It has to be secure and not overlooked – the court form sees to that, and provides a playground that doubles as a garden (landscape is by Sarah Price who also made the new gardens at the Whitworth). 

In one corner, for instance, is a mini-orchard made from ‘retired’ commercial fruit trees. A covered way with timber soffit around the court provides circulation, so making corridors unnecessary. In the rooms, generosity of space extends vertically into the tholos-like roof lanterns, externally clad in cedar shingles. A sleep-room for the very youngest is softly daylit through glass lenses arranged in the shape of constellations. And windows looking across an intervening garden to the primary school allow siblings of different ages to see and wave at each other.

Great fun is had with the various circular (and in the case of the nursery, also triangular and square) apertures: the brickwork is exemplary throughout, as is the natural lighting (the building is BREEAM Excellent) . The building was only partly in use when I visited, with external landscaping works still to be completed: even so, and on a dismally wet day, the high intelligence, wit, clarity and quality of this township centre came across strongly. It cheers you up to encounter such a place: it helps to restore your faith in what architects can do. Civitas is well served here. 

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