History Faculty Building


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
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Statutory Address:
University Of Cambridge, West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9EF


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Statutory Address:
University Of Cambridge, West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9EF

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Cambridge (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


History Faculty Building, built 1964-1968 for the University of Cambridge to the designs of James Stirling, renovated in 1985-1986 by Bickerdike Allen Partners.

Reasons for Designation

The History Faculty Building, built 1964-1968 for the University of Cambridge to the designs of James Stirling, renovated in 1985-1986 by Bickerdike Allen Partners, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* as a highly significant work by James Stirling, one of Britain’s foremost post-war architects;

* as the second in a triumvirate of university buildings, known as the Red Trilogy, that are without doubt James Stirling’s most significant works in England;

* for Stirling’s highly creative re-working of a familiar formal language, executed with masterful handling of form and colour, characteristic of his style;

* for the high degree of survival of the original plan form, fixtures and fittings, which have been little altered since the building’s completion;

* as a distinctive and popular piece of post-war university architecture.

Historic interest:

* a distinctive example of a new approach to education buildings, from a period when the universities were at the forefront of architectural patronage;

* within the context of the University of Cambridge, the History Faculty Building takes forward the exceptional faculty buildings of the Sidgwick Site in the mid-C20. Group value:

* for the strong functional group the History Faculty Building forms with the nearby university faculty buildings of the Sidgwick Site, including the Raised Faculty Block, Faculty of Economics, Lady Mitchell Hall, and Little Hall, all built between 1956 and 1968 to designs by Casson Conder and Partners, and each listed at Grade II;

* for the strong geographic group the library building forms with a number of nearby listed buildings within the West Cambridge Conservation Area including the University Library (built 1931-1934 to the designs of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, listed at Grade II); Harvey Court of Gonville and Caius College, (built 1960-1962 to the designs of Sir Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson, listed at Grade II*); and the entrance block, chapel and master’s lodge (1882-1889 and 1884, by Sir Arthur Blomfield), and college hall of Selwyn College (1909 by Grayson and Ould), each listed at Grade II.


The organisation of the University of Cambridge as a system of faculties developed in the inter-war period, and the university increasingly appointed University Teaching Officers (UTOs) without a collegiate fellowship. By the 1940s, the arts and science faculties were competing for accommodation on the New Museums and Downing sites. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 prompted the university to form a Site Committee, who criticised the piecemeal nature of previous schemes, and called for a framework whereby university buildings might be planned more systematically, including the rationalisation of the New Museums Site and concentration of the arts elsewhere. With the exception of Giles Gilbert Scott’s University Library of 1932-1935, the land west of the backs of the colleges remained largely a mixture of playing fields and large villas occupied by dons. The Sites Committee recommended that the university purchase the Corpus cricket grounds north of Sidgwick Avenue (previously considered as a possible location for the university library in 1920), and several adjacent houses south of West Road, then owned by Gonville and Caius College. In 1949, a list was prepared of faculties that might move to the Sidgwick site, including: Economics and Politics; Modern and Medieval Languages; English; Moral Science; History; Divinity; Architecture and Fine Arts; Music; and Archaeology and Anthropology. Shared facilities would include a building for non-affiliated UTOs, plus lecture halls of varying sizes.

A long-list of architects was drawn up, and two competitors proceeded to a second stage: Robert Atkinson and Alexander F B Anderson; and Hugh Casson and Neville Conder, owing to Casson’s work as coordinator of the Festival of Britain, where he brought a diverse range of buildings together as a cohesive whole. Atkinson and Anderson’s submission was very much in formal Beaux-Arts mode, the site bisected by a broad thoroughfare, with two three-sided quadrangles to the south end, and the northern end dominated by a central thousand-seat lecture / concert hall. Casson and Conder’s proposal was quite different, being a ‘carefully balanced combination in the layout of the formal and the picturesque’, with a loose series of quadrangles, and the Raised Faculty Building as its centrepiece, raised on pilotis, allowing vistas across the site. Casson and Conder’s scheme was approved in 1954; the Raised Faculty Building was under construction by 1959; the brown-brick Economics and Politics building completed the quadrangle in 1961; and Lady Mitchell Hall and Little Hall were constructed in 1963-1964 following redesign. Following negotiations with Gonville and Caius over the purchase of residential sites on West Road, the university were forced to revise their plans for the north end of the Sidgwick site, resolving to construct only ‘general buildings’, and the more specialised needs of Architecture and Music, the thousand-seat lecture / concert hall, and the ‘water court’ were all omitted.

The main focus of the revised development plan was the History Faculty Building. Both Leslie Martin and Casson were invited in May 1962 to suggest possible architects, and a distinguished list of names was gradually narrowed down. The final shortlist was drawn up in November 1962, featuring the Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP, who had designed the ‘Beehives’ at St John’s in Oxford), David Roberts (then teaching in the university and designing various college schemes), and Stirling and Gowan (who by that time were constructing the Engineering Building at the University of Leicester). Stirling and Gowan’s design (essentially by Stirling, who split from Gowan in 1963) was favoured for its integrated planning, and because it alone could be built for the budget. The basic concept survived to construction, though the refusal of the tenant of no.11 West Road to give up part of her garden required rotation of the design through 90 degrees so that the library faced south-east rather than south-west. The contract was tendered in July 1964 and commenced in October of the same year. Though the contract completion date was set for June 1966, the building was not fully occupied until the end of 1968. Stirling’s proposed allocation of responsibility for the delay of 132 weeks, included 29 weeks caused by the contractor’s inadequacy, 43 weeks by the glazing subcontractor, 13 weeks by the library roof steelwork subcontractor, 28 weeks by leaks in the glass louvres, and 7 weeks by late instructions by the design team (Wilford letter to CU Estate Management, 6 March 1973, quoted by Beacon Planning). The contract sum and agreed extras came to £352,000 but contractors made further claims for additional payment of £109,000.

While the rotation of the building solved the land issue, it exacerbated problems of solar gain which were already implicit in the original arrangement. In addition, the extraction fans proved too noisy for a library environment and were never used. The glass partitions between the offices, seminar rooms and common rooms, provided poor sound insulation, and the original single glazing and glass louvre ventilation system caused many leaks. At the end of the contract, E F Mills, then head of the university’s Estate Management Advisory Service said, ‘I knew that costs and claims were going to be enormous and I had decided to accept the building the following day, but that night it poured with rain and the building leaked like a sieve and so I didn’t accept it … There were leaks after the Faculty moved in and things started falling off early’ (Girouard, Pers. Comm., E F Mills, quoted in Beacon Planning report). The tiles on the stair and lift towers began to drop off in 1978, and the university began legal proceedings against Stirling, before it was realised that too much time had elapsed since design and construction, and proceedings were abandoned. Bickerdike Allen Partners undertook a thorough condition survey in 1984, and recommended remedial work, which took place in 1985-6, and included replacement of all of the exterior tiling, except for the stair and lift towers which were re-clad in red brickwork; replacement of brick copings with precast concrete; closure of the rooftop walkway; replacement of the paving on the terraces; installation of secondary glazing, venetian blinds and complicated ventilation systems; and installation of a corrugated metal roof over the book stacks at the bottom of the library’s glazed roof.

Sir James Stirling (1924-1992) was born in Glasgow and studied at Liverpool University before setting up in partnership first with James Gowan (1956-1963), and then with Michael Wilford in 1971. The History Faculty Building is the second of Stirling’s ‘Red Trilogy’, the Engineering Faculty at the University of Leicester being the first (in partnership with Gowan, designed in 1959 and built 1961-1963, listed at Grade II*), and the Florey Building at Queen’s College in Oxford (designed 1966-1967 and built 1968-1971, listed at Grade II). Other notable works in Britain include: Langham House Close at Richmond Upon Thames (1957-1958, listed at Grade II*); Andrew Melville Hall at the University of St Andrews (1964, listed Grade A); an extension to Branksome Conference Centre in Haslemere, Surrey for Olivetti (1971-1972, listed Grade II*); and No.1 Poultry, City of London (1994-1998, listed at Grade II*).

James Stirling was among the first modern British architects to achieve widespread international standing. He was one of the first post-war British architects to work abroad, when in 1974 he was invited to design a museum in Düsseldorf that led directly to that at Stuttgart. Notable in Europe are: his award-winning extension to the Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (1979-1984), generally regarded as his masterpiece, Stuttgart Music School and Theatre Academy (1987), and the Braun Headquarters at Melsungen (1992), all in Germany; the Electra bookshop for the Venice Biennale, Italy (1989); and in North America, the Fogg Museum extension at Harvard University (1985). Stirling was given the Aalto Award in 1977, the RIBA Gold Medal in 1980, and in 1981 was the first British recipient of the Pritzker Prize, considered the world’s leading award to an architect. He was awarded the Japanese culture prize ‘Praemium Imperiale’ in 1990, and his knighthood was announced in 1992, shortly before his death. The Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architecture prize, is named after him. Subject of a biography by Mark Girouard in 1998, the last few years have seen a revival of interest in the architect’s work, marked by the publication of a number of studies by authors including Geoffrey H Baker, Mark Crinson, Amanda Reeser Lawrence and Anthony Vidler.


History Faculty Building, built 1964-8 for the University of Cambridge to the designs of James Stirling, renovated in 1985-6 by Bickerdike Allen Partners.

MATERIALS: Reinforced concrete frame with a steel roof structure, originally clad in red brick, tile and patent glazing, however most of the tiles on the lift towers and walkways were replaced with red brick of identical colour during renovation in 1985-6. The terraces and podium originally had cast-concrete tiling to match the colour of the brick, and were replaced by cast-concrete slabs around 1986. The interior has a plastered finish, with acoustic boarding to the walls of the reading room, and steel tube trusses supporting the lean-to lantern. PLAN: L-shaped block, six storeys over a concealed basement, running east and south from the north-west corner and containing common rooms, seminar and tutors’ rooms. A pair of square-plan circulation towers is attached to the north elevation. A fan-shaped reading room fills the south-east corner.

EXTERIOR: the L-plan block is six storeys in height over a concealed basement. The roof is flat, from which a gantry with extendable davit arms is suspended for window cleaning. The walls, which taper with height, are entirely glazed and incorporate two sections of glazed louvres at the lower part of each level. Some panes of patent glazing on the first and second floors of the west elevation were replaced by louvres in the late C20 or early C21. The east and south ends of the L-plan block have red brick elevations. Twin circulation towers are attached to the north elevation, formerly clad in red tiles until replaced by red brick in 1986, and connected to the L-plan block by glazed bridges on the upper levels where the building tapers inwards. The totem aspect of the circulation towers signifies the main approaches, and a sculptural canopy attached to the west elevation of the towers indicates the two main entrances at the north-west corner: for those using the library, the main entrance is at ground floor level; and the adjacent ramp to the first floor provides direct access for senior members to the upper floors, allowing them to avoid the large numbers of students around the library entrance. The ramp also provides access to the podium (terrace over the ground-floor level of the library), and is also accessed via steps at its north-east corner. The podium formerly had smaller cast-concrete tiling to match the colour of the brickwork, however these were replaced by paving slabs around 1986. Steps abutting the south elevation of the south arm and the east elevation of the east arm split in two to provide access to the first floor of the stairwells at the south and east ends, and also provide access to the walkway on the canted roof of the first-floor bookstacks (refurbished around 2015). To the east of the circulation towers, a projecting first-floor research room has a roof terrace with a red brick balustrade wall (replacing a floating cast-concrete balustrade in the late C20), and is accessed via the second floor Senior Common Room. The double-leaf doors of the main entrance have been replaced in the late C20 or early C21, and the first-floor entrances and second-floor terrace retain their original doors with distinctive diagonal handles. Occupying the south-east corner between the east and south arms of the L-plan block is a canted reading room, with a glazed lean-to roof, tapering in at each level to an apex over the sixth floor. The semi-sunken reading room is bounded to the south-east, west and north by an inwardly-sloping paved plane or ‘moat’. A platform and steps to the south-east of the reading room were removed in the late C20 or early C21, reducing the depth of the moat; and hoppers were added to the flanking walls of the bookstacks. The moats, steps and platforms are bounded by metal railings, with two intermediate rails added around 1998 for safety. At the north end of the east side, an L-plan bicycle enclosure is bounded by an opposing upwardly-sloping plane, its smooth paving replaced with chequered paving in 2002.

INTERIOR: internally, the building has a tapering section: the cloakroom, toilets and library reading room have the greatest density of occupation for 300 students and are therefore located at basement and ground levels respectively; student and staff common rooms are at first- and second- floor levels with seminar rooms above; and staff offices which have low occupation density are located on the top floors. The interior of the L-plan block has cork flooring throughout (with like-for-like replacement where required, for example on the stairwells, or overlaid with carpet in places), and is finished in white plaster and tile. Access is granted to each floor via the twin circulation towers on the north elevation, which contain a stairwell and a lift (with an accompanying toilet), and glazed stairwells at the south and east ends of the L-plan block. The stair handrails, formerly painted red, had a top and bottom rail only until two intermediate rails were introduced in the early C21 to comply with health and safety regulations. From the circulation towers, glazed corridors extend south and east overlooking the glazed reading room, and much of the building's interior drama derives from the views from these glazed corridors and projecting bays over the library below. Each glazed corridor has two glazed fire doors, inserted around 1986. To the west and north of the corridors are meeting rooms, common rooms, seminar rooms and staff offices, which retain a high proportion of original partitioned walls with glazed panels over (the partitions were designed to be movable). The uses of some of the rooms have changed since the building was completed. Complicated systems of venetian blinds, secondary glazing and some air conditioners were added to the external walls around 1986. The first-floor meeting room and junior common room, overlooking the reading room, have had secondary glazing introduced in the late C20 to reduce noise transfer. The L-plan block retains a high proportion of its original plan form, with the exception of alterations to the ground floor entrance area and custodian’s office around 2005, the removal of stairs to the first-floor research room, and refurbishment of the first-floor staff cloakrooms, first-floor tea room and all toilets around 2010.

The fan-like form of the reading room was designed to be monitored by one person from a control desk in the north-west corner, which acts a pivot point for the concentric reading desks and radial bookshelves (all original). The area around the control desk was refurbished around 2008, with the control desk replaced, and glazed balustrades and partitions, computers and soft seating introduced in the former card-index area. From the control desk, steps descend to a semi-sunken reading room, with bookstacks on two levels to the south-east end. A disabled access lift was added around 2002. The walls of the reading room are lined with white acoustic boards or plastered, and a high proportion of cork flooring survives (though some cork tiles have been replaced piecemeal during maintenance). A variety of seating is provided in the reading room, either in specialist reading bays along the north and east walls, at large tables in the main area concentric to the control desk, or at long lines of fixed reading benches against the south-east wall of the bookstacks. The original desks and lamps have been retained, and all chairs have been replaced. Access is provided from the ground floor of the bookstacks to the first floor via stairs on the west and north walls, and two spiral staircases in the canted corners, each stair having intermediate rails added for safety around 2008. The first floor of the bookstacks overlooks the reading room with a metal balustrade rail (glazing added around 2008). The roof of the reading room has steel tubular trusses between two skins of glass, the upper skin having adjustable louvres for ventilation. The lower skin of glazing is translucent, producing shadowless natural light on the reading room tables below. The roof space between the two skins is up to 3.5 metres high, and has maintenance catwalks accessed from hatches off the third-floor corridors, which provide access to the artificial lighting installation (no longer operable). The shape of the tapering roof causes heated air rising from the floor to be drawn upwards and dispersed through coloured extraction fans at the apex (never used due to noise).


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Books and journals
Baker, Geoffrey H, The Architecture of James Stirling and his partners James Gowan and Michael Wilford, (2011), 107-130, 157-165
Berman, Alan (ed.), Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy, (2010)
Girouard, M, Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling, (1998)
Harwood, E, Powers, A, Smith, O S (eds), Oxford and Cambridge, (2013), 103-121
Harwood, E (editor), Davies, J O (photography), England's Post-War Listed Buildings, (2015), 252
Jacobus, John, James Stirling: Buildings and Projects 1950-1974, (1996)
Reeser Lawrence, Amanda, James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist, (2012)
'Information about facade cleaning' in Architects' Journal, (18 April 1973), 945
'History Faculty, Cambridge University' in Architectural Review, (January 1965), 17
'Florey Building Oxford, Criticism by Mark Girouard' in Architectural Review, (November 1972), 266
Banham, Reyner, 'History Faculty Cambridge' in Architectural Review, (November 1968), 328-41
Summerson, John, 'Vitruvius Ludens' in Architectural Review, (March 1983), 18-21
Beacon Planning, Statement of Heritage Significance: The History Faculty, University of Cambridge’, June 2017


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 23 Oct 2007
Reference: IOE01/16840/06
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr Peter D. Dewar. Source Historic England Archive
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