A Place to Think

                “A rchitecture arises as human beings change the landscape.
                                          [Architecture] is the art of building communities. ”
                                                                                                                                        Ralph Erskine

In 1960, the University of Cambridge and its Colleges resolved to adapt to a rapidly globalizing academic environment. Clare Fellows responded creatively, initiating a process that would lead to the founding of Clare Hall in 1966. Along the way, they enlisted Ralph Erskine on the project of building a resolutely modern community within Cambridge's history-rich landscape. A British architect and long-time resident of Sweden, Ralph Erskine (1914–2005) famously proposed modernity on a human scale. Visitors to Clare Hall will well understand why Erskine's contribution to modern architecture is often compared to those of Frank Loyd Wright and Philip Johnson. 

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A light-reflecting pond enlivens the exhibition space around the enclosed courtyard...

In Erskine's design, pedestrian circulation converges around a small enclosed courtyard and pond overlooked by the adjoining passages, creating both a functional and symbolic centre for Clare Hall. A rain-collection system allows the pond to be naturally replenished. The play of water-reflected light and shadows animates the surrounding spaces, which also serve as a College art gallery. The result is an active yet restful space which inspires and sets the tone for other public and private areas of the College.

...occasionally reflecting moonlight: an exhibition opening




“As in a ballet of life, we must understand the movement of people through the spaces we create. We must learn how the presence of people will transform ‘space’ into ‘place’. […] Instead of housing or working areas, we should strive to create places for living.”

Ralph Erskine

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The Dining Hall beautifully illustrates Erskine's interpretation of the founders' values:


The new buildings form a skyline of striking triangular profiles, not overwhelming the environment but rather inscribing nature into residents' daily lives. The interplay of geometric and natural shapes has only become more engaging over the years as the gardens have matured.

The angled wooden ceiling allows the dining hall to also serve as an intimate concert hall with excellent acoustics, attesting to a keen interest for music among the founders. The tradition has been cultivated since, as the Blüthner grand piano in the corner subtly informs new diners.

bathed in light and opening on to luxurious gardens...
it provides a serene and informal setting for the communal meals of Fellows and students.

                “Ralph Erskine was a true humanist. His buildings radiate optimism,
                   appropriateness and wit, which endear them to many.”
                                                                              Geoff Denton for A+U,  January 2005

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Surrounding the central College building are the Fellows residences, and four student residences: Brian Pippard Building, Michael Stoker Building, Elmside, and Leslie Barnett House.

Brian Pippard Building
Brian Pippard
Fellows flats
Fellows flats
The integration of existing residences to the design underlines the cosmopolitan spirit of Clare Hall: Elmside...
and Leslie Barnett House

Adjoining Elmside is the Ashby Library, named after Eric Ashby, Master of Clare College from 1958 to 1975. Together with Richard Eden, Lord Ashby played a central role in the discussions that led to the founding of Clare Hall (see College History and  Founding Texts). To the left of Elmside, just a short distance across the road stands the venerable Cambridge University Library.

Between the Ashby Library and the main College building now stands the Anthony Low Building. Commonly known as the ALB, it provides a relaxing social environment for graduate students, serving as a venue for the Film Club's international film evenings and for jazz evenings, among other events.

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Recently, Clare Hall acquired "Flame", created by Helaine Blumenfeld. The bronze sculpture signals an open passageway leading inside the compounds to the entrance of the College. This quite original entrance design allows the porters lodge to be centrally rather than peripherally located. Thus, while rethinking the inside/outside transition, Erskine in the same movement extends the porter's role beyond gatekeeping, and further makes architecture an art of building communities.

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The Reading Room
Richard Eden with a student

Tour of Clare Hall

    1. Main College Site (this page)
    2. West Court

Tour of Clare Hall
Text: Denis Bilodeau
Photomontage: DB, Nami Morris
Photography: see Photo Credits

Updated  Oct.11.2008