The bean-counter's contract

Cambridge, always one of the nation's great patrons of contempory architecture, may now be ending a commitment to fine design to please its accountants, writes Jack O'Sullivan
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When most people think of Cambridge, their thoughts are of historic buildings, of King's College's Gothic architecture stretching along the Backs, Wren's innovative library in Trinity, the stately Senate House, and the fabulous, decorated roof of St John's College chapel. Few think of it as a battleground for the future of modern British architecture. Yet, in the second or third court of many colleges, often hidden from public view, lie some of the finest examples of contemporary design. Their detail, materials, form and cost mark them out as structures intended to last half a millennium, like the best that surrounds them.

This commitment to quality makes a Cambridge commission a prized honour for the grandees of British architecture, and a goal for the aspirants. But the question being asked is whether the university, perhaps the greatest supporter of British architecture, is poised to replace its generous patronage with more bean-counting procurement. Is Cambridge about to ditch its expensive, award-winning artists in favour of build 'em cheap and build 'em quick techniques?

The alarm was raised by the Royal Institute of British Architects in a recent edition of its journal, headlined "Campus crisis?" "Wates instead of Christopher Wren, Bovis, not Giles Gilbert Scott. God forbid," worried the editorial. It highlighted a university review of commissioning policy that is examining "design and build" construction. Under this system, instead of having a highbrow architect in charge from working drawings until completion, a developer delivers broad specifications at a fixed price. The result is much cheaper and quicker, as the developer buys everything off the peg and fits it together rather than aspiring to craft a bespoke, unique masterpiece.

The debate has got Britain's up-and-coming architects worried. "It's the end, if you design and build," says the Czech architect Jan Kaplicky, a key figure among the avant-garde. He specialises in adapting space technology, and recently completed an acclaimed, S-shaped pontoon bridge at Canary Wharf. He could confidently expect a Cambridge commission to be the next stage in his career. "Design and build threatens to kill the role of the architect, which is both to create the building and to execute the plan, so the design is preserved through the whole process. If the architect is somehow pushed aside after the first stage, then commerce wins. It would be a tragedy. You can see the results in the Far East and the United States. Interest dies in any fresh approaches to problems."

"You end up with one model for building and apply that generally," warns Zahar Hadid, the Britain-based, Lebanon-educated architect who, despite winning many competitions, including one for designing the Cardiff Opera House, has largely failed to get her radical proposals off the ground. "There has to be some way to create buildings that are interesting and unexpected. We have to learn from other cultures on the Continent, where architects have greater prestige than here. Look at the interesting work done in Barcelona - that was economical."

The difference between the competing approaches is demonstrated by Darwin College, Cambridge. Frank Young House, one of its accommodation blocks, is a modern gem. The serious public facade, set back in generous space away from the street, is in a yellow sandstone and brick that give the building a golden glow. But the back is private, and full of gaiety, a pavilion structure overlooking enclosed decking, ideal for student parties, and leading on to Gonville and Caius playing fields. The roof is painted a Mediterranean blue, so that on a good day it blends into the sky and seems to float. Built by Jeremy Dixon Edward Jones in 1995, Frank Young House cost pounds 1m. It is hugely popular among the college's graduate students.

Five minutes down the road, Gwen Raverat House is home to their less privileged peers, mostly one-year MPhil students just passing through. They have to live in "design and build" accommodation. For a start, the box-like building faces the wrong way, with its windowless back wall blankly pointing towards the best aspect, Mill Pond and the River Cam. The block, built from identical, commonplace bricks, looks like an office. Its entrance is in a car park from where anyone can peer into ground floor bedrooms, whose occupants have, in contrast with their second-floor neighbours, had to install net curtains.

Some of Cambridge's best and newest accommodation, for example Richard MacCormac's 1996 accommodation block in Trinity, has large, elevated bay windows jutting out from ground-floor rooms overlooking gardens. These windows don't need nets. And they can be drawn completely back. So privacy is combined with airiness, an escape pod from a bedroom's four walls. In contrast, the windows at Gwen Raverat House serve a minimal purpose - to let a little light in and keep out the rain. Without an architect in charge, the needs of people were overlooked. It's a place to sleep between visits to the library; not a place to live a gilded youth. In 20 years it will look shoddy and dated. But it serves the college's purposes - it cost about the same as Frank Young House, and you can pack twice as many students in. That's an equation the college accountants, who see the university more and more as a business, can understand better than the whinges of architects.

Cambridge's modern gems also include prestige structures. The Queen's building in Emmanuel College (1995) is perhaps the most successful of recent examples. Sir Michael Hopkins had to design a structure within a small space next to a street full of buses, that would be suitable for musical performances in its 170-seat auditorium, enhance the neighbouring Fellows Garden and preserve the view from the street of Wren's famous chapel. The result is an award-winning masterpiece, built from the same Ketton stone as the chapel four centuries ago, and with a beautifully hand-buffed, curved facade. Inside there is perfect silence, an elegant, Gaudiesque spiral staircase, and a Steinway, with its own lift, which is elevated from the basement into the auditorium for performances. "We are delighted with the building. It clearly catches the eye," says Professor John Ffowcs Williams, Master of Emmanuel, which has not disclosed the cost. "It has won prizes and increased the visibility of the college, which is very helpful."

Against such evident satisfaction, it is hard to understand how the design and build lobby is gaining a foothold in Cambridge. But other prestige university buildings have enjoyed more qualified praise. Norman Foster's vast and expensive Law Faculty library is as impressive in its ambitious use of glass as his Stansted Airport structure. It shouts out the importance of Cambridge and of m'learned friends. But the library has a problem. It is noisy. John Outram's Institute of Management Studies (1996), so innovative in its Pharaonic-style use of strong colour, overran, at pounds 11m, its original budget. And Jesus College's pounds 2.2m Quincentenary Library (1996) with its light, milky interior by Shalev and Evans, has won prizes, but the uncharitable suggest that health club design and B&Q home furnishings may have been an unconscious influence. It only needs a Jacuzzi, and a thatched bar serving pina coladas.

In the shadow of these grand projects, the university has seen Homerton College cause a huge stir by completing its Mary Allan library, auditorium and teaching wing cheaply and efficiently under a "develop and construct contract" based on Sibley Robinson's initial drawings.

Since the RIBA Journal broadside, the university authorities have closed ranks and say that the architecture debate has been blown out of proportion. David Todd-Jones has presided over a golden age in Cambridge architecture, and his retirement as director of the university's estate management department has sparked the review. He denies that "design and build" is in the ascendant. "The university always has and always will use a range of procurement. But one will always want good architecture." However, he adds: "Architects certainly would find it disturbing if, for some reason, Cambridge and its colleges turned away from architect-led buildings."

Bill Allies worries about what will happen. He was responsible for the award-winning, Dutch-style 1995 Rosalind Franklin building in Newnham College. One of its distinguishing features is the unusual, roughly finished red brick, carefully mixed from different pallets each of a slightly different shade, giving refreshing articulation to the wall surfaces. "In the initial plans I could have specified a red brick, or even a red hand-made brick," he says, "but there are still 10 different red hand-made bricks, and if a design and build contractor had been in charge, he would have gone for the cheapest and the effect would have been lost."

Allies hopes that a compromise will be struck between architects and the new demand for tighter control on budgets. He is currently designing a sewage pumping station for Thames Water. "We did the working drawings, then it went to a design and build contractor, who nominated us as architects for the final stages. It's a compromise, but it has worked well." He sees the combination catching on.

In short, the days seem gone when architects could hope for a blank cheque by profligate dons, flush from generous benefaction and scheming to build better than their neighbours. But the long-term result of the current review is unclear. No one yet knows whether Cambridge in the new millennium will be ready to give the latest generation of the avant-garde, the likes of Jan Kaplicky and Zahar Hadid, their place among the dreaming spires.