Associate and Heritage Team Leader from Purcell’s East region, Rowenna Wood, discusses understanding modern buildings in use through the lens of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Rowenna explores Purcell approaches that have been used to gain an understanding of Churchill College’s multiple layers of significance, to ensure the positive future for its built heritage.
The significance of Churchill College in Cambridge has many layers. Architecturally it represents a very restrained, British version of modernism that responded to topography and reimagined the traditions of the historic college buildings for the post-war era.
Moreover, the competition to design it was a watershed moment in British architecture that influenced the design of many university campuses as well as a turning point for the practice that designed it, Sheppard Robson. Churchill College has heritage value for other reasons too.
It is the national and Commonwealth memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, who was involved with its establishment as a forward-thinking institution that focused on science and technology, rather than the arts, from the belief that this was Britain’s future. Furthermore, it was to have a high intake of state-school students and international fellows. The buildings that were created were designed to reflect the egalitarian ethos of the new institution with generous and comfortable accommodation for all.
Why does this matter? The owners of listed buildings, such as Churchill College, are required to preserve and enhance the significance of their buildings. It is easy to think that “preserve” means to make no change. However, Historic England’s guidance makes it clear that preservation means doing no harm, rather than making no change: “few places are so sensitive that they, or their settings, present no opportunities for change”. Understanding significance is the key that unlocks potential for change; if the significance is preserved, then the change, in theory, is not harmful.
To facilitate management that would preserve and enhance significance, Churchill College commissioned a Heritage Appraisal to cover its built estate. This lies in two conservation areas and includes seven listed buildings, six of which were constructed in the original building phases in the 1960s and early 1970s.
 Historic England, Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance, Para 148, p 58.
The Heritage Appraisal was developed as a bespoke document to meet the needs of the College. It forms a tool that can be updated as new information becomes available whilst providing a consistency of approach. The appraisal can be thought of in three parts: the first setting out what there is and how it has come to be; the second assessing and articulating the significance; and the third providing guidance on the practical application of understanding the significance.
Underpinning the appraisal is an understanding of the site’s historical development. At Churchill, there are existing short accounts of the history of the college and a wealth of original archival material. A judicious review of this enabled the production of an account of the history of the main college and the houses it owns along Storey’s Way that focuses on the buildings.
Understanding how the site has developed enables an understanding of where there may be opportunities for change by modifying or removing later changes or enhancement of significance through reinstating lost elements.
Many of the changes at Churchill over the years have been relatively small scale and carefully detailed so they are often not obvious but understanding where change is important because these are the areas that generally have the greatest potential for future change.
As well as the past, it is vital to understand the physical context of the site now. The appraisal explores the setting of the site and views within, to and from it and considers how these have changed since the listed buildings and non-designated heritage assets were built. This helps identify which elements should be protected, for example at Churchill, a view towards the towers of the central colleges and university buildings.
The analysis also helps to understand the changing context of the site, such as the westward development of the university that means Churchill College is no longer perceived as far away and, with the development of science department buildings on Churchill’s doorstep, there are opportunities that connect with the College’s original foundation as predominantly science-based.
Alongside the physical context is also the heritage context. This section offers a comparison of the site with other comparable places so the relative importance of the site can be understood. Churchill College was considered in the context of post-war architecture, the oeuvre of Sheppard Robson and the other houses on Storey’s Way. These three sets of comparisons enable the local and national importance of Churchill’s built estate to be appreciated.
All three elements of analysis feed into the central part of the appraisal: the statement of significance. For Churchill, a succinct summary statement of significance identified the essence of what makes the main college site important and a second articulated the significance of the Storey’s Way properties. To help those seeking to understand the site in more detail, there is also a more detailed assessment of the heritage values and the contribution made by individual buildings and landscape elements to the overall significance.
As well as the heritage values being set out in prose and a table, coloured plans provide further detailed analysis. At its heart, Churchill College was established as a forward-thinking, science and technology-based institution with an egalitarian ethos and serves as a national memorial to a great leader, all of which was reflected in the design and construction of the original buildings.
This is the significance that needs to be preserved and enhanced. Much is encapsulated in a few words but, when unpacked, they provide guidance for future decision-making.
The third part of appraisal articulated some of this guidance in more specific detail. A section on the potential for change drew out the implications of the significance levels assigned to different buildings, parts of buildings and landscapes to suggest where change would be possible or even desirable to preserve or enhance the significance. The type of change that would be acceptable was also explained, for example, whether there was potential for modification of a landscape whilst remaining a landscape or change to accommodate a building.
The Conservation Philosophy provides an overarching approach to the management of and decision-making about the College’s built estate drawing directly on its specific significance. A set of heritage design parameters goes one stage further and articulates what change might look like to preserve and enhance the significance.
Both the Conservation Philosophy and the design parameters reflect an ethos in which creative design responses and conservation approaches can flourish tailored to the specific site. This is important because it helps to avoid inappropriate change that will mar the built estate for future generations. It also enables positive dialogue with statutory stakeholders, such as Historic England, and more successful planning and listed building consent applications because any change can be demonstrated to have been specifically designed to preserve or enhance the significance.
In commissioning a Heritage Appraisal, Churchill College has initiated a positive future for its built heritage. As befits a place of learning, there will always be more to be discovered about the buildings and this can be woven into future revisions of the appraisal. It is a living document that serves as a tool to guide planning management and change of the site in ways that minimise abortive costs, foster good relationships with a range of stakeholders and, above all, help steward the heritage so it can be passed on in good condition to future generations.