Homerton Dining Hall - an interview with the architects

By Laura Kenworthy 5min read
Internal hall

Homerton's beautiful new dining hall is open for business and, from the clusters of students revising in the Buttery, to the coffee drinkers on the external built-in benches, it has seamlessly become an integral part of College life. Architects Ed Fowles and Eleanor Hedley of Feilden Fowles, whose design won an open competition five years ago, describe how they responded to former Principal Professor Geoff Ward's ambition for the building, and the thrill of seeing it in use.

All photographs by Jim Stephenson 


What excited you about this project?

Ed: When the competition was announced, in 2016 it was a massive long shot for us. We’d never delivered a public building, or something on this scale, and most of our competitors were people we’d looked up to as students. But it’s such a rare opportunity: Cambridge Colleges usually already have a dining hall and in many cases they are hundreds of years old. We were also excited by Homerton’s unique and progressive character and its beginnings in East London, which really resonated with me, as I’ve lived in Hackney for 15 years.

Eleanor: The fact that Cambridge is where I studied, at Magdalene, meant that I understood the sense of ceremony that the dining hall has to carry. If someone had told me when I was a student that one day I’d design the Homerton dining hall, I’d have been thrilled! It was also very exciting to have a client with such high ambitions for what they wanted to achieve.

How did you approach the design?

Eleanor: Most of the key moves in the design you see today were developed at competition stage where we threw all the effort we could at it – it was such a unique opportunity! The team who worked on the design at the beginning saw it all the way through to completion. We knew as a practice that we could do it, but we did feel like the underdog in the competition as we were against some more established and excellent practices!

Ed:  It’s fairly unique in Cambridge to have such an open site with expansive landscaped gardens, so that was a very important influence, leading to a very porous design that opens up to its surroundings. We rotated the hall 90 degrees from the orientation of the Great Hall so that the longest elevation faces the mature trees and meadow to the south. Most halls are very solid and have heavy timber at the base, whereas here you walk in and are immediately met by the views out and lots of light filtering down from the high-level windows.

How did the practical requirements of the building affect the architecture?

Eleanor: It needed to be able to feel domestic and welcoming in the daytime and suitably formal at night. Being able to use shutters to block off the daylight in the Hall at ground level was one of the ways in which we achieved this. The Hall can be light and open in the day yet intimate and low lit in the evening.

Ed: We had to balance the more poetic ambitions of the project with the pragmatic brief – the kitchen spaces being highly practical and functional. Paul Coleman, Rob Gamble and the catering team were very helpful throughout the design process. The existing kitchen was so dark, and I’d worked in kitchens as a teenager so I had a lot of sympathy for their need for better working space. The pot-washer now has one of the best views!

How important was the existing architecture of the site?

Ed: Geoff had a nice line, that he wanted the building to be “referential but not deferential” in terms of its relationship with the other historic buildings. The Ibberson building was a great inspiration, and its brick detailing and Arts and Crafts spirit feed into the new hall. The Great Hall was also a key reference point – the colour and form of its spire acting as an early inspiration for the form of the faience.

Eleanor: Stylistically, we all had the buildings of the existing College and the spirit of the Great Hall in mind while designing.

The faience is hugely distinctive. What made you choose it?

Ed: The faience was part of the design from very early on, and references the richness of the Arts of Crafts Ibberson building. Faience was historically used in Victorian public buildings but also adorns many pubs and tube stations. We wanted something which would change throughout the day – it reflects the trees around the building, and shimmers in the changing light.

Eleanor: Faience was a material we had seen used elsewhere and the glazes can be so beautiful  it was very exciting to find an appropriate opportunity to use it. We worked hard with Darwen Terracotta to develop the glaze colour - the way the glazes work, you don’t always know how they’re going to come out after firing. We have quite a number of samples in the office which didn’t work at all! It was also hard to represent or completely predict how the final façade might look from a distance, in different weathers and lights. We’re really happy with the final result.

How does it feel to see your concept rising from the ground, and now being used as part of the day-to-day life of the College?

Ed: We made a lot of models, but nothing quite prepares you for the scale of it. It was a nail-biting moment when the scaffolding was removed! It’s really special to see it in action.

Eleanor: I’ve been on maternity leave so hadn’t seen it for the final few months. When I was sent a video of the choir singing from the balcony after completion, just as we’d imagined they would, it was a hairs on the back of your neck moment.

It’s a real privilege to be able to add something to the Cambridge experience for future students, and to be part of the magic. Colleges build with longevity in mind, so it’ll hopefully be part of the landscape for generations to come.