It is not simply that it is intelligently organised, an inspiration for the staff and students, who come here from all over the world to study, train and live. It is not even because the engineering and workmanship is of a high order. One expects all these things from its architects, MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, whose talent for producing distinctive modern buildings infused with history, a sense of place and good craftsmanship has become more refined and plausible with each new project. It is first and foremost because the architects, working closely with the engineers Ove Arup & Partners, have spent the pounds 14.3m budget allocated to the building in a way that inverts received technical wisdom.
They have used the money to build to a quality that one might expect of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. They have invested their budget in material solidity and in what the Roman architect Vitruvius called commodity (convenience), firmness and delight. They have done this by working out simple, clever ways of abandoning air-conditioning and all the technical and mechanical lumber a building of this sort is normally weighed down with and spoilt by. Without the overlay of unneccesary mechanical plant and equipment, the building is especially enjoyable to use and will be cheap to run.
It is quite remarkable to find students and teachers working in lofty, naturally ventilated spaces that, lit by north-facing clerestorys, resemble artists' studios more than classrooms. The electronic spaghetti and ineffable telecommunications wizardry that Cable & Wireless students wrestle with generates considerable heat. This is dispersed very simply by the way the classrooms have been shaped and how their windows have been placed. Here, architecture and common sense regulate heating and ventilation.
5 In this way, the college might be called old-fashioned, even antique, for it is precisely this approach to heating and ventilation that makes traditional buildings in India, North Africa and the Middle East such a delight to be in. In such buildings, the architecture is arranged so that air conditioning is unnecessary. Throughout the college, corridors are lit by the sun rather than by fluoresence. Nature, despite the unnatural science taught here, is never far away.
The ins and outs of its heating and ventilation systems are not, however, the first things that will strike you about this building. What draws the eye is four waves of roofs shimmering like a dragon's skin. These are the sea-green roofs of the classrooms, arranged in overlapping ranks and fronting the college. The tiles are held together by stainless steel cables and were inspired, says Richard MacCormac, by a visit he made to Singapore while President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. There he was shown a suit of Han dynasty armour made of jade and beaten gold, this mosaic of precious materials held together by wire. The tiles are not just decorative; they enjoy excellent thermal properties, helping to keep the classrooms cool in summer and warm in winter
The classrooms stretch out to greet you as you arrive, while a great V-shaped cut between the teaching wings beckons you towards the entrance, gained through an elliptical courtyard at the heart of the building.
Again, drawing on history, David Prichard and Richard MacCormac say the manner in which the college embraces visitors is derived from Andrea Palladio's Villa Badoer at Fratta Polesine near Venice (1556). Palladio's farmhouse has two curving wings that spread like welcoming arms from either side of a central villa as if gathering in crops, animals, people and the surrounding countryside. Whatever the historic source, the effect is delightful, particularly at night when the Cable & Wireless College is magically lit.
So, too, the grouping of the various buildings that constitute the college. The elliptical courtyard at its heart looks up through an aperture to the Coventry sky. The courtyard is marked out by four great, copper-clad columns; these, too, are elliptical in profile. From here one can enter the teaching wings arranged in four ranks to the south, the refectory, library, common rooms and museum, or walk out to the Mogul-like garden which leads to student, teachers' and guest rooms arranged in groups of 20 off staircases.
To the west there are views of the countryside, and to the east a sports hall and recreation pavilion, an afterthought, built to the same exacting standards as the main building. The student rooms are finished to a higher standard. For many students coming to the college from the 50 countries that form the Cable & Wireless empire, the rooms offer high-quality accommodation during the two years they are in Britain. Previously, they had been dotted around Porthcurno, Cornwall, the location of the company's former headquarters, abandoned in 1988.
Throughout this miniature university, the architects have worked hard to make penny-plain materials look so nearly glorious. Blockwork is one of the dreariest of materials in existence, yet here it resembles stone. Concrete has been treated so that, in soft light, it might be the rustic marble of Augustus's Rome.
And everywhere there is colour, deep, rich and boldy applied. It is rare for English architects to plunge so deeply into a palette of dark reds, mauves and blues. Here walls of richly coloured hand-
finished plaster have been polished with beeswax to give them a natural and lustrous finish.
Throughout the building, from the distinctive roofs to the ellipse of its courtyard and the unembarrassed use of strong colour, the harder edges of modern architecture have been smoothed away. The guiding, geometric logic of the plan remains, however, to stop this special building from sliding into whimsy or theatricality.
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