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Protect and Survive

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

The 2008 Stirling Prize winner, Accordia, is looking good. The 9 hectare site, was originally a Ministry of Defence site to the south of Cambridge’s city centre, which received planning permission in 2003 for 378 houses.

The demand was that the development be an exemplar for urban living, and you sense there was something of the ‘Case Study’ house when architects Alison Brooks, Feilden Clegg Bradley and Maccreanor Lavington submitted their designs.

The good news is that development is bedding in nicely- a fact helped by the fact that there was already a landscape there when the development was started. A key fact in the consideration of this development, it allows those Alison Brooks’ and Feilden Clegg’s large terraces and villas, with their generous glazed area to be set against some gorgeous mature trees. Maccreanor Lavington’s mews houses, by contrast, sit behind- restrained but dignified, their narrow roads also counterpointing the main boulevard. Low-rise towers overlook the green, given the courtesy of additional space and views. Read together, despite its orthogonal nature, there is a complexity to the site that goes beyond initial perceptions. Despite what you would think, it actually reveals itself to you slowly in a kind of urban burlesque that seems wholly at odds with the restrained nature of the town.

In one corner of the site sits the last vestige of the site’s former use- the 1964 nuclear bunker designed to be the seat of local government in the event of a nuclear war. An example of the severest Brutalism, as only this typology could be, entering this space with the consideration of its purpose, is the most sobering experience. With concrete walls 5 feet thick, not one window, bare concrete walls and thick plexiglass-clad operations rooms, this cold, dark functional space, through its conscious denial of comfort, warmth or joy seems in fact to become a form of an ‘anti-architecture’ purer than any so-called minimalist could ever aspire to. And with its Grade II status, and recent purchase by the University estate, it looks like its role as a ‘momento mori’ in the urban Eden of Accordia is assured.