A New Court for Clare College
24 May 2009 (collegiateway.org) — The residential college idea is a modular idea. It’s based on the notion that as an institution gets bigger, change must not only be quantitative, but also qualitative. Because all education is local and personal, local-ness and personal-ness must be preserved during periods of growth or else the animating spirit of the educational enterprise will be lost.
The modular nature of collegiate growth applies not only to the creation of whole new colleges within a university, but also to substantial additions within an individual college. A new quadrangle being constructed at Clare College in Cambridge illustrates this principle beautifully, and Collegiate Way subscriber and friend John Clare—related by membership but not genealogy to that ancient society—invites us to take a virtual tour of the new quadrangle on the Clare alumni website.
One of the important things to see in these plans is the way the college thinks of itself as a self-contained and self-sustaining unit—and as corporately-independent bodies that’s what all the Cambridge colleges are. In designing this new court, Clare wasn’t at the mercy of central university planners, but rather was building with the thought of improving its own local facilities. As such, the addition isn’t simply a collection of bedrooms, but rather includes not only residential space but also elements that will support the college’s educational objectives as well as the summer conference trade that generates good will and income.
The new Clare College quadrangle, to the the left in this view, preserves the intimate scale of the earlier college buildings and adds not only new sleeping quarters but also a lecture hall and facilities to support the summer conference trade.
Also important is the small scale of the new buildings, which match the scale of the older sections of the college. People often think of the Cambridge colleges as grand structures, and many of them are indeed grand in style. But they are all quite small in scale. These new Clare buildings are all two- and three-story structures, and the courtyard they enclose is one you could easily shout across. (See Christopher Alexander’s comments on the design of small public squares for comparison.) Maintaining an appropriately domestic scale is essential if we wish to cultivate the kind of social relations that constitute the collegiate way of living.
An artist’s rendering of the new Clare College court. Note the small scale of the buildings and the outdoor spaces.
Congratulations to Clare on this thoughtful design, and best wishes to the generations of future scholars who will have the good fortune to make this cozy quadrangle their home.