Newnham College steps into the light

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Newnham College, Cambridge, didn’t want a building of pomp or grandeur. But the lighting has made it stand out in quite a different way

The Sidgwick Avenue elevation of the Dorothy Garrod Building with its illuminated hit and miss brickwork creating an understated, elegant entrance.
The Sidgwick Avenue elevation of the Dorothy Garrod Building with its illuminated hit and miss brickwork creating an understated, elegant entrance. Credit: James French

‘Everyone likes how this building feels,’ says Walters & Cohen’s Cindy Walters of the practice’s extension to Newnham College, Cambridge. She is in no doubt as to why that is: ‘They love the light. I think people walk through the door and feel comfortable. And that’s because the light has been thought about very carefully.’ 

For this, she praises Nulty, the lighting designer who worked with Walters & Cohen and interior designer Ab Rogers to create the desired ambience for the £25 million extension, which provides residential accommodation, offices and a porter’s lodge as well as a café, gym and auditorium. 

The lighting has certainly played an important part of the success of the Dorothy Garrod Building, which this year won a RIBA National Award and RIBA East Building of the Year, and is the practice’s first completed higher education project. Walters & Cohen was commissioned to design the 6900m2 extension on a brownfield site that wraps around the back of the Fawcett Building, one of only three buildings completed by Elizabeth Scott, who notably designed the RSC Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The extension also creates a new public frontage in what had previously been a car park.

The new three-storey building is a respectful and understated addition to the campus, providing 90 bedrooms plus 19 in the neighbouring Fawcett Building, which was also refurbished as part of the project. Stretching back at right angles from its main public facade on Sidgwick Avenue, the building continues round again to give a sense of enclosure to the college’s mature gardens behind. For the extension, the architect chose hand-made Northcot brick in a perforated hit and miss arrangement to complement the Sidgwick Hall building opposite, designed by Basil Champneys in 1880.

Nulty used a combination of off-the-shelf products and bespoke elements to create the lighting design for the key spaces in the building.

‘We tried to complement the architecture so it didn’t feel as if it was being betrayed by the lighting,’ says Nulty creative director Daniel Blaker.

This approach began outside the porter’s lodge on Sidgwick Avenue, where Nulty created lighting to highlight two exterior features. For this main entrance, the all-female college had been clear that it didn’t want a design that was imposing or pompous. Instead, the architect created a low key but welcoming entrance, bringing the building forward at ground floor level to signal its function as the way in. Above, an area of illuminated brickwork helps to further announce the entrance. To create this, the challenge was to integrate the lighting behind the brickwork to give a similar glow to that achieved at the ground floor herringbone pattern hit and miss, which is in front of glazing. This meant sourcing a fitting that could slot into the narrow space behind the brickwork and be accessed by hand through it if required. The solution was a 43mm deep linear fitting by Ecosense in 305mm modules, which gives a narrow, elliptical beam upwards.

 

  • Glazing to the street gives views stretching back through the main reception area.
    Glazing to the street gives views stretching back through the main reception area. Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Bespoke light fittings create the dappled lighting in the main reception.
    Bespoke light fittings create the dappled lighting in the main reception. Credit: James French
  • wo brass discs, the larger of which is an uplight reflector, illuminate the reception. A spot downlight creates the dappled effect.
    wo brass discs, the larger of which is an uplight reflector, illuminate the reception. A spot downlight creates the dappled effect. Credit: James French
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‘It’s very poetic at night,’ says Walters.

The other external lighting illuminated the Beyond Thinking artwork by Cathy de Monchaux, which stretches the full height of the building to the side of the entrance.The challenge here was to illuminate the highly textured artwork while avoiding any lighting spilling into the adjacent upper bedrooms. Nulty visited the artist’s studio and tested different colour temperatures and approaches before specifying a powerful narrow uplight. This is embedded in the paving at a 6˚ angle to give more illumination at the bottom of the artwork that gently fades towards the top, while avoiding any sideways spill.

Once inside the porter’s lodge, Nulty created welcoming lighting to provide 200 lux for general circulation with further areas of accent. For this, the lighting designer aimed to complement the architecture by using a warm white light to celebrate the coffered design and brass detailing while also integrating spotlights for the artwork on the walls. The solution for these multiple functions was a bespoke, surface-mounted pendant fitting made from two brass disks. This both casts halo light onto the upper disk to highlight the coffers and incorporates a retractable mini-spot in the lower disk to provide either accent or general light. This can be pulled down and angled to the walls as required. LED strips provide further lighting within the display cases.

The 36 custom fittings, created by Nulty’s sister company Nulty Bespoke, incorporate repackaged Flos downlighter components and concealed emergency battery and drivers.

The result, says Walters, is ‘really uplifting’ when entering the building.

In the central café, Nulty similarly wanted to ensure that the lighting made the most of the double-height space, which is overlooked at upper level by residential corridors. The company came up with an idea for a bespoke chandelier installation sweeping across the space and brought in lighting design studio Haberdashery to help realise this vision. The idea evolved into a sculpture formed by a decorative assemblage of 270 polished and white powder coated brass ‘pages’ etched with letters written by women associated with the college sourced from the college archives

  • The internalised space of the auditorium allows for a broad range of lighting effects as required.
    The internalised space of the auditorium allows for a broad range of lighting effects as required. Credit: James French
  • The double height central dining hall with its strange chandelier sculpture is looked down upon by the residential corridors above.
    The double height central dining hall with its strange chandelier sculpture is looked down upon by the residential corridors above. Credit: James French
12

The challenge was how to light this effectively and elegantly while still providing the required 300 lux levels of café lighting required for students wishing to work in the space. Electro-luminescents and OLEDs were swiftly ruled out because of short lifespan and cost respectively. Instead, the design subtly integrates warm lighting within the strings of letters through the use of 22 small adjustable spotlights installed into the ceiling roses (Evo 16 Shot Snoot by Precision Lighting). Playful shadows of the sculpture on the wall are created with eight spotlights (Prospot LED by Illuma) located at a lower level on the walls. The sculpture also included some LED sources sandwiched between the pages hanging from the same ceiling roses. 

Nulty is particularly pleased that any students looking down from the corridors above will be able to appreciate the artwork rather than having their view blocked by light fittings.

In the auditorium, the brief was to provide 300 lux levels. This was achieved using 10 surface-mounted, linear black lighting profiles (U060 Lightway from Vice Lighting), which contain low-glare LEDs to provide general lighting, and were also able to incorporate a late requirement for spotlights at each end to wash light on the side walls. These end fittings are Unico fittings by XAL, which use a shell-shaped reflector by Bartenbach. 

‘We tried to keep it very structured and clean,’ says Blaker.

Walters & Cohen’s Walters is delighted with what Nulty has achieved at the building.

‘The lighting is hugely important. Thank God for Nulty. If they hadn’t come along, it wouldn’t have been the building it is,’ she said.

Credits

Client Newnham College
Architect Walters and Cohen
Structural engineer AKT II
Building services Max Fordham LLP
Interior design Ab Rogers Design
Lighting designer Nulty
Contractor SDC

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