River Wing at Clare College responds to its historic Cambridge heritage

University of Cambridge opens its new River Wing on Clare College Old Court, uniting modern technology with historic design

University of Cambridge Clare College
(Image credit: Philip Vile)

This project’s sliver of a site at Grade I-listed Clare College, Cambridge, was populated by boilers, catering stores, latrines and flues for most of the 20th century. Now, architecture studio Witherford Watson Mann (WWM) has transformed it into a café, a corridor and a fire escape that could win architectural prizes on their own merit.

Exterior of the building

(Image credit: © Philip Vile)

A tour of River Wing at Clare College, Cambridge

Architect Stephen Witherford says the brief 'read like a collage of different departments’ practical problems… it wasn’t very aspirational’. With its growing student numbers, the college needed more ancillary spaces to serve the primary rooms: a lift, a dumb waiter, toilets, a pantry and an escape stair. 

One key element was to create a café that is non-hierarchical enough to suit staff, students and fellows. No mean feat at a college two years off its 700th anniversary. But on the day of Wallpaper’s lunchtime visit, students were sharing the space – complete with planted lightwells, a bay window, a terrace and a pergola – with a handful of construction workers.

Wood interior details in the hallway

(Image credit: © Philip Vile)

WWM’s site was the building’s 17th-century north elevation, which was built in brick 'because this was a subservient aspect', says Witherford (rather than the classy pale yellow Ketton stone of the public-facing parts). The architects stripped out the 20th-century additions, giving them a 120m-long wedge, 8m wide at one end and just 1m wide at the other, dubbed the River Wing. 

Here, Witherford and his team put in a three-storey, self-supporting solid oak structure, to be 'subservient to the brick'. The lower part is infilled, mostly with bricks saved from the previous buildings, while the top part is glazed. 'The structure has become the architecture here,' he adds.

Long glass panelled windows

(Image credit: © Philip Vile)

Behind the upper glazing is a gallery that runs alongside the fellows’ 1685 senior combination room. The view through the windows into this room is reminiscent of a Dickensian-style private members’ club – dark furniture, heavy tapestry curtains and decanters of port on a sideboard.

In the case of a fire, students occupying the bedrooms on the attic floor no longer have to climb out of a window and crawl along a gutter to an external staircase. WWM’s design is a sturdy but elegant spiral timber escape stair that seems far too stylish for back-of-house.

Regal exterior of the building

(Image credit: © Philip Vile)

Witherford notes: 'It’s always a challenge to get dignified access [for all] to a listed building.' Now, at the touch of a button, some stone steps up to the main entrance retract, revealing a concealed integrated platform lift, which rises to the height of the threshold.

That refurbished entrance has flooring of grey Purbeck Grubstone and more oak. 'We’re not interested in that new-old crude clash, but in a continuous experience,' he says of these material choices. 

Wood spiral staircase

(Image credit: © Philip Vile)

The River Wing is part of a £42m transformation of Clare College Old Court, which WWM led through planning and listed building consent with conservation architect Freeland Rees Roberts.

The first significant new construction at the college since the 1780s, the River Wing sits comfortably alongside its aged parent, and also, in spirit, alongside the architects’ 2013 Stirling Prize-winning Astley Castle in Warwickshire.