The view across the meadows from Queen’s Road towards King’s College is one of the most photographed shots in Cambridge – without doubt one of the most beautiful, unspoilt views in the City, if not the world. Standing and admiring the view, even for just a few minutes, can easily transport you back a few hundred years. If you gaze beyond the cows, the lush grass and the tips of punt poles, the majestic buildings of the College sit grandly in situ like statues of their royal patrons.
It is easy to become solely focussed on King’s College Chapel at the expense of other buildings in view and, to an extent, this is understandable. The Chapel dominates the scene and richly deserves its reputation as Cambridge’s finest building. It really is a glowing testament to the reverence of the King who envisaged it’s construction – Henry VI. However, there are other parts of the College which also deserve attention of their own.
Being the building sitting next to King’s College Chapel is a bit like being the person in a dull costume at a fancy dress party - you simply don’t get noticed. The dubious honour of flanking arguably Cambridge’s most beautiful structure goes to the Gibbs Building, an 18th Century extension to King’s which was built to house the College’s Fellows. Designed by renowned English architect James Gibbs, it is another ‘unsung’ building whose qualities are overshadowed by its illustrious neighbour. Gibbs himself was born in Scotland, trained in Rome and was strongly influenced by the work of Wren (who was an early supporter of Gibbs’ work).
The building was commissioned by the Provost of King’s College as part of a scheme of three buildings designed to complete the College’s layout. The original intention was for two Fellows’ buildings and a further building housing a dining room, Provost’s Lodge and offices. As it transpired, only one of the Fellows’ buildings was constructed. The project may have suffered from budget cuts along the way, thus limiting the eventual scale. All three buildings had been planned to measure 53 feet high, forming a courtyard measuring 240 by 280 feet. This undoubtedly would have been an impressive sight.
Work on the Gibbs Building began in 1721 and the foundations for the bulding were taken from a huge block of stone that had been left over from masons working on the Chapel. The main structure of the building was made up of White Portland Stone, a type of limestone quarried from the Isle of Portland in Dorset. The Cenotaph in London, mentioned in an earlier blog post, was constructed from the same material (and designed by Edwin Lutyens, star of a previous blog post). Today the building houses Fellows’ rooms, a student computer room and the Tutorial Office.
Between 1721 and 1726, Gibbs was simultaneously constructing his most famous and influential building - the church of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, which is located in Trafalgar Square and is the parish church for Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. The design of St.Martin-in-the-Fields became widely replicated in Anglican churches around the world, particularly in the USA. These church designs became Gibbs’ primary legacy to the architectural world as many described him as a ‘stylistic outsider’ and he had little effect on the eventual direction of British architecture; the rise of neoclassicism happened shortly after Gibbs’ death.