Darwin College Study Centre

In 1994, Darwin College completed construction of a new library and study centre along the side of the Granary. The centre is built on a narrow strip of land alongside the millpond in Cambridge, and uses a structure of green oak and lime mortar brickwork. The building uses high-level automatically opening windows and a chimney to control natural ventilation. Unfortunately the green oak dried and shrank, causing the window frames to jam, so the system failed. The building had been designed with special connections which could be tightened to account for the shrinkage, but these also warped, and could not be used

The site, a long narrow rectangle, lies between the curve of Silver Street and the Cam millpool. On the street side the building is low and appears to emerge from the existing curved boundary wall. On the riverside, there are two storeys of accommodation, and in this section computer rooms are placed at ground level along the river front.

The interior of the building is like one large piece of furniture. Structure, cladding, windows, floors, bookcases and furniture are all made of oak. The structure uses sections of a size that were only available 'green' (i.e. unseasoned). The timber was cut and dried for the project, but moisture contents remain in the range of 25 to 60%, and the structure will continue to dry for several years. The timber joints which transfer load use a system of stainless steel fixings to allow the joints to be tightened as the timber dries.

Very few contemporary architects in Britain have made substantial structures in wood, and Ove Arup, the engineers on this project, are monitoring the building carefully. Ove Arup, whose triumphs include the Sydney Opera House and Paris's Pompidou Centre, is famous for innovative engineering and it is quite probable that this relatively humble building will have a greater influence than its size appears to warrant.

The centre feels as if it has been handmade. Jeremy Dixon usually makes his own architectural models as a means of resolving details and, as he puts it, 'settling my mind'. But for all its craft this remains a modern building. The sharp-eyed cultural critic can spot several influences at work, including some references to contemporary abstract sculpture.

The dominant aspect of the interior space comes from the geometry of the roof. The straight line in the plan generated by the waterside and echoed by the clerestory is set against the curved wall to Silver Street. The inside of the curved wall is lined with books, while the rafters forming the roof reconcile the straight line to the curve and generate a gentle three-dimensional curved plane when seen in perspective.

The main reading room is a space which extends from ground floor to first floor, and overlooks the river. 


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