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Brutalist Beauty

Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out, and… he was a beautiful butterfly. The wraps came off the Arup Building in February, but yesterday was the first chance I’d had to see it. It’s looking pretty fine. I came here, aged 17, on the first day I visited Cambridge. The…

Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out, and… he was a beautiful butterfly.

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The wraps came off the Arup Building in February, but yesterday was the first chance I’d had to see it. It’s looking pretty fine.

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I came here, aged 17, on the first day I visited Cambridge. The first-floor labs were used to teach Materials Science to first year students. It seemed to connect a world I knew – British university science and engineering departments of the 1960s – with one which was alien – this ancient city. It seemed to make Cambridge more accessible.

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In this skyline, it’s even bolder. Like a space invader, a bug or an oil rig. A remarkable thing to have built. With Brutalist buildings such as Birmingham Central Library disappearing, it’s wonderful to see it survive and reemerge.

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It had its faults. The concrete was stained. The bird shit was significant. Some great plan to link the city centre at one level above street level came to nought – leaving the entrance to the Babbage lecture theatre up a flight of stairs.

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But it’s hard not to love a building with bolt-on flying walkways, many storeys up. Where Natural Scientists spent most of their lecture time, at least for the first couple of years – and where I also got to see lectures by people like Jim Al-Khalili and Stephen Hawking.

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It’s also hard not to love a building containing a Zoology Museum, with a 20m whale skeleton strung up outside.

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The Materials Science department and the Computer Lab have now gone to the West Cambridge site. The Zoology department and museum are in temporary homes, and the whole building has been given some tender love and care.

It’s to become the David Attenborough building, housing the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, bringing together people from many different academic disciplines to help understand and solve some of the most crucial biodiversity conservation problems. This end will house an enlarged Museum of Zoology. With a new place for the whale, accompanied by songs from the Ocean Song Project, which recorded at my six-year-old’s school yesterday.

I understand why it polarises opinion, but I love this building.

Comments

Toni Fish

Toni Fish

That was beautiful G. I’m not generally a brutalist fan, but old university buildings and research centres are special places. Lovely writing!

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