Journalist Kenneth Robinson tore into Cambridge’s architecture in a film piece in the BFI Archive.
You can watch it for free at https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-other-cambridge-1964-online
A fair amount of Cambridge town in the video has since been demolished, but before their demolition, some of these places formed the backdrop to my childhood.
Cambridge as ‘any other town’
“But what about the town?” …is how Robinson starts. And this was a time when the demolition of parts of the town centre’s pre-WW2 architecture was beginning to take place as the authorities tried to implement the Cambridge Development Plan by Holford & Wright.
He describes it as being like any other town in East Anglia, rather than as this renowned tourist hot spot. Remember it was only a decade after rationing had completely finished – it took a long time for Britain to recover from wartime austerity.
Above – Cambridge’s car parking problems 1964 style. A freeze frame from the film piece in the BFI.
Car parking was not a new problem, even as far back as 1964. In part because we didn’t get electric trams proposed in the early 1900s.
Not everyone was on board with the tram plan and it was scrapped just before the outbreak of the First World War.
By 1935, the free-for-all that was park-where-you-like was brought to an end with the town’s first parking scheme.
Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection, motor traffic had clearly been an issue for some time.
So much so that the Cambridge Daily News was making April Fool front pages out of it – this being Parker’s Piece having been turned into a car park long before the days of digital manipulation of photos.
Cambridge Daily News from the Cambridgeshire Collection
Robinson praises some of the modern architecture – in particular some of the new student accommodation and the lecture halls – “Getting the buildings they deserve…the fashionable accommodation of the 1960s…it could only happen in a university town … young enough to care and living in the latest of pop architecture.”
Ironically, with the praise for a number of modern schemes, Robinson also praises the ability to turn away from traffic filled streets down small alleyways full of bookshops and so on. The problem is that the demolition of the south side of Petty Cury and later on the construction of the Grafton Centre, would get rid of many of those small alleys that he so praised.
For those of us too young to remember, photographer Peter Soar took his camera out to photograph the old Lion Yard just before the wrecking balls came in. Have a look here.
Robinson was particularly scathing of the new ‘supermarket style’ architecture that he blamed on colleges selling land to speculative developers – citing Bradwells Court as an example.
Poorly maintained, this early 1960s construction would be torn down less than half a century later. Its replacement today has not been a retail success either – mainly because central government under the Coalition and later the Conservatives would starve local councils of funds, resulting in homelessness crises across the country – and the re-opened Christ’s Lane would prove an ideal place for the homeless to find some shelter at night. Accordingly, customers stayed away and retailers closed up.
Robinson also slammed “shopping palaces in neoclassical styles instead of village-style gabled shops” – and slammed both Boots and M&S over their choice of colour schemes as being totally out of place in a city known all over the world for its college architecture. I’m not entirely sure if Mr Robinson saw any photographs of what was there before, but my take is that the Victorians and Edwardians made a considerable improvement to the centre of town in most cases.
Robinson does make the astute observation that many of the buildings look older than they are. There were many buildings in town that I thought were hundreds of years old that I later learned were Victorian or Edwardian pieces. For me the sad reality is that much of Cambridge town’s pre-Victorian architecture wasn’t that out of the ordinary compared to other places. Why should it have been when in 1800 the population was less than 10,000?
One road he’s particularly scathing about is actually one of my favourite interwar developments – Sussex Street.
He calls it “a monstrous piece of architecture that makes ordinary shops look like the sort of place where they sign peace treaties…with about as much charm as an atomic power station”. Give me Sussex Street over the Grafton any day. Or Lion Yard for that matter.
Rose Crescent gets it in the next
Tearing into Gonville and Caius College for the redevelopment of the western side of the crescent, again my take is that the buildings they replaced weren’t the most architecturally unique – they were standard late Georgian/early Victorian town centre buildings of the style of buildings that were actually put up by scoundrels of a previous era – Mortlock and family of the late 1700s/early 1800s!
The buildings on the right of this freeze frame incur Robinson’s wrath.
Robinson states: “The colleges have played almost as big a part in spoiling Cambridge over the years as the city and county councils.”
There’s some truth in that, but then on the other hand the electorate gets the councillors they deserve. Don’t they?
Actually, we need to look at the structure of local government.
The proposal above from the Local Government Boundary Commission of the mid-1940s sort of sketches out how I see a series of three or four unitary councils working in the historical county of Cambridgeshire. At the time of Robinson’s report, Cambridgeshire County Council was effectively ‘Cambridge County’ (i.e. today’s South Cambridgeshire boundaries give or take a bit of East Cambs) plus the Isle of Ely county. You can sort of make out the smaller districts within them.
The next thing to recall is back in the 1960s, Cambridge City Council had councillors elected and selected ***purely by the University of Cambridge***. The late Colin Rosenstiel recorded the names of these nearly all men who found themselves in such posts. Scroll to the bottom of the page in this link. Some were absolute scoundrels while others – such as Mayor Lady Alice Bragg, were civic legends. Here’s Lady Bragg giving what I believe to be the first recorded speech by a Mayor of Cambridge on video. Because different organisations had different planning, housing and transport responsibilities, the whole thing was a complete mess. Today’s ministers have only succeeded in making that administrative mess even bigger, mainly because the idea of a Cambridge unitary authority run by socialists and liberals is something of a constitutional outrage to a Conservative Party that sees Cambridge as a sort of aristocratic inheritance. When you compare the big majorities the Tories got in post-war councils with the almost ‘post-millennium extinction’ of one of the biggest political and civic societies in Cambridge’s history, you can almost see why ministers are still in denial.
Car is King
You can see Mr Robinson in this frame looking at the appalling concrete monstrosity that is Park Street Car Park in front of him. He blames the colleges and the councils for spending too much time squabbling and not enough time problem solving to deal with the motor car. We’re still squabbling over its proposed replacement today – the design and outside of which I don’t consider to be an improvement. Actually I consider it to be minimalist early 21st Century disaster capitalism architecture that will struggle in the face of a rapidly changing climate – social, political and environmental.
Mr Robinson didn’t like what the Victorians did to Cambridge either
“This sort of thing can come down – and it will” said Mr Robinson of Mr John Pink’s Free Library round the back of the Guildhall. Which for me is an outrageous comment as it’s one of my favourite parts of the Guildhall.
***Hey!!!! Robbie!!! You leave my liiiiiibrareeeeee a-looooooonnnnnne!!!***
Now that Jamie Oliver’s restaurant empire has gone into administration, I need to chase up with the council on when a new tenant will move in – only it’s too splendid a building to be left empty.
He also recommended that the ‘undistinguished Corn Exchange be demolished – saying that Cambridge missed the best of ‘Victoriana’ and the best that can be said is that there’s a lot that can be pulled down. I can’t think of a single civic or public building in Cambridge built in the 1960s or 1970s that I wouldn’t replace in an instant with something better. Unfortunately the same goes with the ones built in my lifetime – am struggling to think of any that really sweep me off my feet in the way that I want a building to.
***Oi! Scoundrel! Me and my music gang played a sellout gig in that undistinguished building! You are not touching a single brick on our musical masterpiece!***
We are sound / Dowsing Sound Collective at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, Christmas 2014 – though I managed to avoid the camera for this video!
There’s me on the far left of this still. Oh – I still want the bigger concert hall near Florence Ada Keynes’ old house on Harvey Road. The Corn Exchange was completed in 1875 when our town had a population of 40,000. By 2021 it will be over 140,000. We’re overdue a new one.
Round the back of the Guildhall – what we were about to lose
You have to have a sharp eye to have spotted where in town these frames were filmed.
It’s Guildhall Street by the Fisher House chaplaincy, out of your screen on the right, with the Guildhall in the far background and the old, ornate Red Cow pub as the furthest of the block of buildings nearest us. In the second frame just behind the cars round the back of the offices you can see how old the buildings are by the roof tiles. In the background is a very grotty looking Corn Exchange in need of much TLC. Before the present and previous Lion Yard multi-storey car parks were built, the former buildings to the east of the Corn Exchange were demolished to create a single level car park – which all too often filled up.
In 1950 Holford and Wright proposed constructing a multi-storey car park here. Cambridge took a quarter of a century more to complete the job.
Robinson praises Gordon Logie’s plan for Lion Yard.
“The city and the county want to build a centre for the arts and shopping here at Lion Yard”
Gordon Logie was one of the most controversial of our public servants in post-war Cambridge. I kind of feel sorry for him because throughout the 1960s he was working for too many different masters, and all of his schemes ultimately got rejected, leaving Cambridge with the retail and offices, but not the arts and culture things bar the new central library. I may not be a fan of Logie’s plans or architecture, but the man deserved far better from the councils, the university and central Government – the last of which scrapped one of his schemes because the new minister didn’t like it. Actually there’s probably more to that story, but I can’t help but feel Mr Logie got a rough ride.
Robinson backs Cambridge Skyscraper Plan for the New Museums Site.
Which would have done this to Cambridge’s skyline, and also this. Locals had a riot and fortunately those monsters didn’t get built. But Robinson notes, this one did: His much-hated Gonville and Caius development. I can’t say I like it either, but the buildings it replaced were hardly remarkable.
Note the bus and car going passed on Market Square/Market Street – and the car park in Market Square. 1960s Cambridge was dominated by the car.
“If anyone can remember why that got built, can they remember why the Guildhall thrust itself into Market Square?” Asks Robinson.
Actually yes. It’s because Conservative councillors failed to give Cambridge Hero Sir Horace Darwin sufficient backing to get John Belcher’s masterpiece of the late 1890s built. And so it was left to Mayor Florence Ada Keynes to try and unite the town behind one – any design for a new guildhall when it became clear that we really really needed one. But we couldn’t agree on a design and Florence got it in the neck for the prison-like structure that Cowles-Vosey left us with.
Robbed: Hero Horace of Cambridge – who was snubbed by the local Tories over a new guildhall.
Monstrosity: Cowles-Vosey’s first design for our new guildhall. Did he think he was building a prison or something?!?
Horace’s House: John Belcher’s design for Sir Horace Darwin as Mayor of Cambridge. Local celebrity political commentator Puffles the dragon fairy considers this design to be ‘work in progress – delayed by unforeseen circumstances’
Local pest Puffles inside the last guildhall scheme that got cut back – the public assembly rooms of 1862.
“That’s quite enough of that – what of Emmanuel Street?”
Mr Robinson wants to defend Christ’s College over the western side of Hobson Street (Which I think from the cinema northwards is a big improvement), before slamming said college over this bland post-war number. The photo below from the Museum of Cambridge’s archive shows what we lost. The tall building at the back – formerly a mayoral mansion would become the HQ of the Cambridge Liberal Party for a number of years. It should have been preserved.
Above – Emmanuel St Corner/St Andrew’s Street, from the Museum of Cambridge.
“Cambridge still has to find the architects that will give it buildings of the right quality at the right scale”
I’m still looking for them – let me know if you find them.
The three buildings Robinson cites are nothing spectacular. I can understand why he picked them – in particular the Highsett development (which he should have named on the film)
But inspite of my criticism of Mr Robinson, we do end up on agreeing about the splendidness of the original Cambridge Railway Station building of the 1840s.
“They don’t build buildings like that today.” Mr Robinson concludes.