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When London-based architecture practice Feilden Fowles won an international design competition to conceive Homerton College's new dining hall, the firm's starting point of design was to create something that resonated with the rich architectural heritage of Cambridge. The brief encompassed a dining hall, buttery, kitchen and staff amenities on a 3000 sqm site located next to 1914-built Art & Crafts style Ibberson Building and several Victorian Gothic Revival structures.
The need of a dining hall arose in view of the growing number of students at Homerton, where the brief sought to fulfil both functional and celebrational aspirations of the program. Homerton College is Cambridge’s youngest university, and still the revered institution's largest college by student number. Located on the south of the city, it formerly held the role of a teacher’s training college which was founded by a group of dissenting academics in 1768. It, however, became a full college of the University of Cambridge in 2010.
Responding to the brief, Feilden Fowles created a space, which unlike historic dining halls that largely remained dark in the day, capture views of the neighbouring landscape in daytime and transform itself dramatically in the evening as a beautiful beacon in the setting. Speaking of the social connections the new hall generates, Feilden Fowles explains in an official release, “The dining hall has been conceived as an open and generous building in the round. It addresses the challenge of relating to its four very different aspects: embracing the college grounds to the south and east, meeting the Grade II-listed Ibberson Building, addressing the street, and improving connections to graduate student residences and parking facilities to the west. By doing so, the building creates a range of informal social spaces around its perimeter – from the courtyards and cloisters, to generous thresholds with seating hewn into the façade – inviting chance encounters and moments of interaction for staff and students alike.”
One of the highlights of the dining hall’s design is its façade that has been projected as a mantle of green faience. Faience is a traditional form of earthenware decorated with opaque coloured glazes. With its roots in Italy, this form of tile work was popular in the UK from the 1860s where it appeared on countless Victorian public buildings. For the development of this façade, Feilden Fowles collaborated with Darwen Terracotta, one of the few remaining architectural ceramics fabricator. The selection of the colours and textures for the glazes was done with the intent to complement the university’s existing material palette. Over 3200 tiles compose the hall’s exterior; the relief of the faience resonates with the historic motifs of the 1889-built Gothic Revival Great Hall and its magnificent spire. The tiles taper upwards revealing a high-level glazed clerestory which creates a glowing presence of the hall at night while the dining area is lit up from the inside.
Another distinctive feature of the hall is a sweet chestnut glulam timber frame and butterfly truss composing a valley shaped roof. According to Feilden Fowles, the frame was fabricated offsite and installed by a family team using traditional handcrafted carpentry joints fastened with oak dowels between the columns and beams. The hall with a capacity to accommodate 336 students is designed and detailed for a 100-year lifespan. Pigmented in-situ concrete plinth and columns laid out on a 3m x 3m module defines the ground floor. The building’s social spaces feature expressed timber framed volumes. “The columns wrapping the base of the hall,” adds Feilden Fowles, “continue their rhythm internally to define other key public areas; the buttery, reception and servery. Back of house spaces – the kitchens and staff facilities – are linked to the front of house with highly functional circulation and servicing connections.”
The design of the hall for its architects captures the sensibility of the Arts & Crafts tradition and follows the practice’s interest in low tech forms of design. Speaking of the project, Feilden Fowles' Director Edmund Fowles shares, "The design of the hall is symbolic of Homerton’s progressive character and bold ambitions, yet simultaneously in conversation with the rich architectural heritage of Cambridge. There are echoes of the marching buttresses of King’s College Chapel, references to the Victorian Gothic Revival of Homerton’s Cavendish College buildings, and motifs of the neighbouring Arts and Crafts Ibberson Building. They combine as a marker of today’s architectural thinking, an embodiment of low-tech principles, an Arts and Crafts of the 21st century.”
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