Spotlight on: Denys Lasdun’s Brutalist New Court at Christ’s College Cambridge

Spotlight on: Denys Lasdun’s Brutalist New Court at Christ’s College Cambridge

New Court by Denys Lasdun is often overlooked because of its private nature; its concrete landscape unfolds majestically within the bounds of Christ’s College – its public facing facade on King Street is merely an average row of shops. Yet this fantastic, monstrous, machine-like Brutalist building built 1968-70 is a joy to climb on a sunny day, with its strange jungle of surrounding plants. This building is featured on the Modern Cambridge Map. Read more about its design here.

Christ's College New Court Denys Lasdun architecture

Nicknamed the ‘Typewriter’, this seven storey stepped landscape of precast concrete study bedrooms complete with concrete window seats and individual terraces, culminates in courtyards and common rooms towards ground level facing inwards towards the private college grounds, squash courts and laundry rooms in the basement, and a row of shops on King Street.

This landscape, which the architect described as being inspired by ‘hills’ and ‘valleys’, was designed to reduce the height of the building whilst providing a maximum amount of interior space. A long flight of stairs, somewhat reminiscent in its concrete procession of the Alexandra Road Estate (Neave Brown, completed 1978), connects from the Christ’s College grounds into the building, climbing up past the common rooms and towards the study bedrooms.

Christ's College New Court Denys Lasdun architecture

The study bedrooms are envisioned as individual units, built in a precast concrete panel and beam system, which layer up to create the whole. The craggy peaks rising above the study bedrooms are the plant rooms, which somewhat disrupt the rhythm and give the building its machine-like identity.

Lasdun used the stepped section and the precast individual cell for the design of the University of East Anglia (1962–1968), a building which is much more visible located in a more spacious college campus with a large park and therefore more widely photographed and known.

Christ's College New Court Denys Lasdun architecture
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I was one of the first to occupy a room in this building, arriving in 1970. I rather enjoyed it. My room was on the top floor and had a good view of the Stephenson building opposite and felt airy and modern, though the bare concrete aesthetic took a bit of time to get used to. I was able to walk out onto the roof of the room in front, and after a while students enjoyed using the whole complex as a giant climbing frame. Frisbee and other games were played in the green space in front. I soon discovered that soundproofing between rooms left something to be desired. ( as I’m sure did my neighbours). The laundry and student bar were conveniently located downstairs. Two of my tutors, the late Roy Porter, and also the now very famous Simon Schama occupied larger rooms. I did feel that the building seemed to symbolically display a level of contempt for the modest architecture of the town ( much more of which was being destroyed to make way for the new Lion Yard development. My father, when delivering me to the college for the first day was surprised that the ugly concrete car park accessed from King Street was actually the back of the same building in which I would be living for my first year. He, like me had not seen brutalist architecture like this except on the S Bank and it was not at all what he expected. He assumed, I think that I would be living in a room in an ancient building in one of the old courts. Later, I had a delightful room in First Court, so his expectations were ultimately fulfilled.

roger parker

I had the dubious privilege of living in a room on the lowest floor of this building in my first undergraduate year – looking up, mole-like, onto the lawn. It was an awful place to live, the atmosphere being that of (we imagined) a nuclear bunker. And rumour had it that after construction was complete a load of sound-proofing material was discovered, unused. One could hear pretty much everything that the neighbours were up to. And I hated the fact that while the view of the front (from a distance) was impressive, the King Street back was an undistinguished multi-storey car park, perfectly demonstrating the contempt in which the “town” was held.

I look forward to the day when this blot is demolished.

Ian Gamse

I’m staying there right now, you can book through Christ College hospitality, I love it, Brutalism behind classic Cambridge College buildings!


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