Cripps Court history

Cripps Court was finished in stages between 1974 and 1983. It originally housed 171 student bedrooms, three Combination Rooms (Junior, Middle, Senior) and a bar, three Fellows' Flats, Dining Hall, kitchens, and Health Centre.

It was the benefaction of the Cripps Foundation, then led by Humphrey Cripps, and was the largest building ever erected by the College. It enabled the College to offer accommodation to undergraduates within the main college site for three years, something that it had previously been unable to do.

By the 1960s, Queens’ faced a bleak future. With the growth of student numbers in the university, it was almost universal amongst Cambridge colleges that no college could accommodate all of its undergraduate students on its main site for the whole of their time. Most colleges, unless they were fortunate enough to have off-site hostels, placed their second-year students out of college in “licensed lodgings”: a university-supervised system whereby spare bedrooms in the houses of city residents could be let out, on strict conditions, to university students, and the “landlady” (many were widows) supervised the students’ conduct, and reported back to their Tutors if necessary. A curfew required students to have returned to their lodgings by 10pm each evening, unless they had previously arranged a “late leave” signed by their Tutor, and shown it to their landlady in advance. One of the few things that could be said in favour of this system was that it made the prospect of sharing a set in Fisher Building in the second year seem like heaven.

Queens’ had two factors working against it: it had no off-site hostels (and no land on which it could build any), and, by some quirk of history, it was the first-years (rather then second-years) that were placed out of college with landladies (unless the first-year held an Entrance Scholarship, in which case, they could be accommodated in college). The only way to break out of this pattern would have been for one year’s cohort to have lived out in lodgings for two consecutive years, which did not happen. The prospect of spending their first year out in lodgings must have been a significant disincentive for applicants to have chosen Queens’ in competition with the offerings of other colleges. Another simultaneous problem was that the existing dining hall and kitchens were inadequate for the student numbers, despite having pressed the Erasmus Room into service as an overflow dining room in 1964. Queens’ began to plan for a new building.

Arthur Armitage was President of Queens’ 1958–​70. In that period, the Vice-Chancellorship of the University was filled by a College Master, on a two-year rota cycle. Armitage happened to be Vice-Chancellor 1965–​67, during which period the Cripps Building of St John’s College was being built. In 1968, at a feast at St John’s College, the seating plan placed their alumnus-benefactor Humphrey Cripps next to the recent University Vice-Chancellor. Quite what passed between the two men is now a matter of anecdote, but the result was that Cripps became interested in the Cripps Foundation assisting Queens’ with their development plans. That interest soon became a commitment from the Foundation.

Cripps took over the Design Team from the successful St John’s project to work on the new Queens’ buildings. For its part, Queens’ stipulated that it wanted a court, with a sense of enclosure, rather than the more open style of the St John’s Cripps Building. With no land in Cambridge on which to build an off-site hostel, the new building would necessarily have to be erected on the main site. The Queens’ Fellows sacrificed their 17th-century walled garden west of the river for the project, which, 30 years earlier, the Fisher Building had carefully avoided by curving around it. The Fitzpatrick Hall, a 1936 conversion of a much older stable block, was also sacrificed. By this time, the Fitzpatrick Hall had become the students’ JCR rooms and Bar, and the only indoor venue for plays by the Bats drama society.

Design work started in 1969. Demolition of the walled garden took place in winter 1971–​72. Almost by accident, part of the north wall of the former Fellows’ Garden was left standing, as its removal was not immediately needed: in reaction to the earlier demolitions, the remaining north wall was Listed Grade II by the authorities in 1972, and further changes to it thereby prevented. The old Fitzpatrick Hall was demolished in summer 1973 as part of the site clearance for Phase 2.

The 1973 oil crisis and the economic stagflation of 1973–​5 required the cash-flow of the new building project to be moderated. The project was broken up into three phases, to be undertaken over a longer period than originally planned:

Phase 1 would comprise the foundations and concrete superstructure of Phases 1 and 2, but the finishing of only a part of the residential accommodation (staircases AA to EE, excluding the rooms on EE adjacent to FF);
Phase 2, itself undertaken in sub-phases, would comprise the new kitchens and dining hall, then the finishing of the accommodation in EE and FF, and then a communal launderette and toilets on the ground floor under FF;
Phase 3, comprising an All-Purpose Hall, intended as a replacement for the old Fitzpatrick Hall, was deferred for an unknown period.

Phase 1 was sufficiently completed for undergraduates to move into staircases BB, CC, DD, and most of EE (excluding the rooms which back on to FF staircase) in October 1974. This was a transformation, as Queens’ had leap-frogged the on-site provision of most other colleges to be able to offer accommodation on main site for all three years of an undergraduate career. From being one of the least desirable choices for applicants, suddenly it was amongst the most desirable. The new Cripps Court was, of necessity, mainly occupied by freshers, and has remained that way ever since. The Fellows were not able to move into their new SCR on AA staircase because catering was still being provided in the Old Hall. A new JCR and Bar, on the ground floor under EE staircase, followed in 1975.

With the completion of Phase 1, the main contractors, Laings, were released from their contract, as were the quantity surveyors Gleeds. Apart from the occupied bedrooms, the remainder of the building was a concrete shell. Construction continued at a slower pace under a company wholly owned by the Cripps family, using a direct labour force bussed in daily from their Northampton factory.

Phase 2a: after a very long building project, the new Kitchens and Dining Hall opened for breakfast on the 2nd January 1979. The Fellows were able to move their SCR to AA staircase from the former location beside the Old Hall.

Phase 2b: attention then turned to the bedrooms on FF staircase and the unfinished rooms on EE staircase, which were completed and ready for occupation by April 1981 (the Easter Term). A Buttery/Shop was also constructed in the lobby of the new Dining Hall: this later proved to be economically non-viable.

Phase 2c: the final part of Phase 2 comprised the communal laundrette and toilets on the ground floor under FF staircase, along with the first incarnation of the Angevin Room (which would later be enlarged in Phase 3). These finished in 1983.

Phases 1 and 2 of Cripps Court were now complete, and physical building work ceased for three years. The western elevation of the court did not look completely finished, with the kitchens not having a proper delivery bay, and the ground to the west of the court was not made up: it was used as a car park. The 1936 squash courts clung onto existence until Phase 3 started.

Design Team for Phase 1:
Architects: Powell, Moya & Partners, London (with Jacko Moya being partner in the lead for this project);
Job Architects: Eric Lloyd, Roger Burr;
Structural Engineers: Charles Weiss & Partners;
Mechanical & Electrical: Haden Young;
Quantity Surveyors: Gleeds;
Contractors: Laings.

Critical reception

To my mind Cripps Court is easily the best piece of modern architecture by a British architect anywhere. In comparison, much of the new building that’s cracked up to be brilliant these days seems pretty soulless.
[Masterpiece by the Cam, by Stephen Gardiner, in The Observer, 1980 May 11, p. 37] 

The development of Cripps Court has made a significant impact on collegiate life in Cambridge. … Cripps Court makes a valuable addition to a city already blessed with a number of examples of fine modern architecture.
[RIBA Architecture Awards 1982, p. 24]

But what have Powell and Moya done at Queens ... to disqualify themselves from getting a full award? For were Queen’s anywhere else in Britain but Oxford or Cambridge it would surely have done so.
[Cripps Court, Cambridge, by Deyan Sudjic, in RIBA Journal, Vol. 89, No. 8, 1982 August, pp. 35–​7]

Cripps is quietly dignified and restrained.
[Strike up the bland, by Deyan Sudjic, in the Sunday Times, No. 8249, 1982 August 8, p. 35] 

Subsequent history

The flat roof to Phase 1 became problematic very quickly. It leaked rainwater into the building at various places. The mortar between the black bricks of the surface finish appeared to dissolve slightly in rain-water, and then precipitate out again in the internal down-pipes as they reached the slightly warmer building below the roof, resulting in the pipes developing a form of sclerosis, narrowing them to the extent that the smallest leaf could block them, leading to the roof flooding and ponding easily and frequently. It proved almost impossible to remove the deposits from the down-pipes. These defects had become apparent in Phase 1 even before the roof of Phase 2 was designed, so a different form of flat roof was used for Phase 2: it had an upside-down structure, where the waterproof layer was lowest, laid directly on the concrete roof slab, with the thermal insulation layer above. The surface finish was composed of paving slabs laid loose on plastic supports, and drainage channels of loose gravel. No mortar was used anywhere. The Phase 2 flat roof proved sufficiently successful that it was decided to re-model the Phase 1 roof to the same design. In 1985, the Phase 1 roof was dug up, down as far as the concrete slab, and replaced with a roof finish of the Phase 2 design. During these works it became apparent that there had been some workmanship issues during the original construction of the Phase 1 roof: various foreign objects were discovered in the asphalt layer. The new roof lasted without issue until the flat roof was replaced by the new 4th floor in 2006.

The windows of the Armitage Room, a significant decorative feature, were found to be too draughty, and were fitted with secondary glazing in 1985.

The story of Phase 3 of Cripps Court, 1986–​89, is continued in the page on Lyon Court. By the time that Lyon Court had been finished, it had been 21 years since the inception of the project in 1968 at the meeting over dinner between Humphrey Cripps and Arthur Armitage.

En-suiting of the bedrooms in Cripps Court began with staircase EE in 2002. In a typical sub-corridor of 3 rooms, the two study-bedrooms at each end received a within-room en-suite unit of shower, wash-basin and WC, while the study-bedroom in the middle, which was too small to have an internal en-suite, was provided with a dedicated room across the corridor, where the earlier communal bathrooms had been. The gyp-rooms were gutted and refurbished. Forced ventilation for both fresh-air intake and stale extract was installed to all rooms, with heat-exchangers to pre-heat the fresh air. Smoke detectors and alarms were installed. As part of this project the Bar on the ground floor of EE was remodelled, and a conservatory was built extending the bar into Lyon Court. En-suiting of bedrooms on staircase DD to a similar specification followed in 2003.

In 2006–​7 the flat roofs of Cripps Court were replaced with a new 4th floor of accommodation with pitched roof, described in the page: Cripps Court 4th floor.

In 2008, en-suiting of bedrooms on staircase CC took place, and one ground-floor bedroom was re-modelled with enhanced accessibility features.

In 2009, smoke detectors and new alarm systems were installed in those parts of Cripps Court that had not already received them as part of the en-suiting upgrades: AA, BB, and FF staircases.

In Michaelmas Term 2009 and Lent Term 2010, the staircase entries to Cripps Court, formerly open to the elements, were enclosed in glass lobbies. A ramp was built to provide more accessible entry to staircases BB, CC, DD and the Health Centre. The cloister walls of Phase 1, originally rendered with cement, were lined with Portland stone to match those of Phase 2. The Cripps Foundation provided finance for this project.

The internal white concrete finishes in the Dining Hall were chemically cleaned in 2012.

In 2014, staircases BB and FF were en-suited to a similar specification as the earlier staircases. On FF, four unsually large rooms were sub-divided into two of similar sizes to the rest of Cripps Court, following the elimination of internal escape corridors that were no longer needed. On BB, in order to provide a better size of gyp-room, some rooms were transferred to AA staircase. Consequent upon these changes, staircases AA, BB, and FF, were re-numbered.

Secondary glazing was installed in the bedrooms of BB (2014), FF (2015), CC (2017).

Further reading

1971: Queens’ College, Cambridge : proposals for new buildings, by Powell and Moya, Architects, Feb 1971. [First design for Cripps Court] 

1972: The Fabric, in Queens’ College 1970–​1971, p. 5. [construction starts] 

1973: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1972–​73.

1973: Cambridge exemplars, by Stephen Gardiner, in The Observer, No. 9514, 1973 Dec 2, p. 35. (ISSN 0029-7712)

1974: The New Devleopment and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1974.

1975: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1975.

1976: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1976, p. 4.

1977: The New Development and the College Appeal, by James M. Prentis, in Queens’ College Record 1977, p. 4.

1978: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1978, pp. 6–​7.

1978: Wall to the Backs : New buildings for Queens’ College Cambridge, in Architectural Review, Vol. 164, No. 977, July 1978, pp. 36–​41. (ISSN 0003-861X) [Cripps Court] 

1979: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1979, pp. 4–​5.

1980: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1980, p. 3.

1980: Masterpiece by the Cam, by Stephen Gardiner, in The Observer, No. 9846, 1980 May 11, p. 37. (ISSN 0029-7712)

1981: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Peter G. Stein, in Queens’ College Record 1981, p. 2.

1981: The Fabric, by Robin Walker, in Queens’ College Record 1981, p. 4.

1982: The New Development and the College Appeal, by Derek W. Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 1982, p. 2.

1982: RIBA Architecture Awards 1982, p. 24. (OCLC 39820647) [Eastern Region Commendation] 

1982: Eastern Commendation: Cripps Court, Cambridge, by Deyan Sudjic, in RIBA Journal, Vol. 89, No. 8, 1982 August, pp. 35–​7.

1982: Strike up the bland, by Deyan Sudjic, in the Sunday Times, No. 8249, 1982 August 8, p. 35. [review of Cripps Court] 

1983: The Fabric, by Robin Walker, in Queens’ College Record 1983, p. 5.

1984: The Fabric, by Robin Walker, in Queens’ College Record 1984, p. 7.

1987: A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge, 1448–​1986, by John Twigg, pp. 376–​9. (ISBN 978-0-85115-488-6)

2008: The Building of Cripps Court, by Derek Bowett, in Queens’ College Record 2008, pp. 37–​8.

2009: Powell & Moya, by Ken Powell, pp. 75–​80. (ISBN 978-1-85946-303-1)