A work of art that's brutal to work in

September 5, 1997

Cambridge's Judge Institute has a shiny new building, but what is it like to work in?Kate Worsley finds out from lecturer Jane Collier

Academics struggling along in substandard accommodation may envy those who have shiny new offices custom-built by top architects. For years the Judge Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge was split between sites in the engineering faculty and a Georgian townhouse. Cambridge University, true to its tradition of commissioning challenging buildings by renowned architects, gave "classical modernist" John Outram the task of designing a new home. After lengthy consultation with staff, his radical vision materialised in the shell of the old Addenbrooke's Hospital opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1995.

Despite running Pounds 11 million over budget, Outram did them proud. The original Digby Wyatt facade is joined by a glazed gallery to the Ark block, where academics work in paired rooms either side of a central corridor. To one side is the Castle block, which contains the lecture theatres and was inspired by the Castello Sforza in Milan.

The impressive lobby soars sky high and has dinky seminar bays with electronic network sockets for brainstorming sessions. There is a vast coffee bar with squidgy leather sofas. Vending machines and public telephones are built into pillars. So far so bold. But what is it like to work in?

Management studies lecturer Jane Collier's room is on the first floor of the Ark and overlooks the soaring columns and flying walkways that zigzag across the gallery. This side of her room consists of glazed doors that open onto the balconied walkway, turning her office into more of an alcove. Although well finished and warmly painted, the room itself is strangely nondescript. On the back wall, where a Brassai print of Parisian steps neatly echoes the view, a small door opens into the windowless central corridor. Has this arrangement, as intended, provided her with "a more private place where staff can pursue their research"?

"All I know is that functionalism and utilitarianism were a long way from the mind of the architect." Ah...

She pays due respect to design details and the use of materials (Outram's famous Blitzcrete - crushed brick in sliced concrete that looks like Spam - and Doodlecrete, a complex moulded concrete invented especially for the Judge), but is not the type to gush. Her faint Irish accent emphasises the no-nonsense vision behind her management speak.

"It depends what you think an office is for, really. Offices are private places but they're also places where you see lots of people. One of the advantages of being right here is that people can see you from the whole building. They can look up to see if there's a light here. But if I want to do some work I go to the library."

A hubbub of voices and footsteps rises from below and drowns out her words. "As you can see this is some students coming out of class ... well, you can hear it." Her desk is as far away from the walkway as it is possible to get. "Yes, this is the hiding place. But one of the deciding factors is that the bookshelves couldn't have been there - marvellous architects, you see - because in there," she gestures to a corner cupboard by the desk, "are all the switching systems. All these rooms are burdened with this business of having some kind of service access within."

She brightens: "I always look forward to coming to work anyway. You make your own small comforts and your own small securities. You can't work against it; you have to go with it."

The common room must be an improvement? "In the old places, which were smaller and cosier, there was a tradition of having coffee and tea together. Here people feel that they can't spare ten minutes for coffee. It is just work pressure:it's phenomenal."

The building is certainly colourful, at least. "I think the colour scheme was orginally designed to be much more sophisticated, elegant and complex. Those plain white pillars out there were to be multicoloured. The money ran out, or", she plunges on, "what I think happened was the benefactor's wife had other ideas".

Her verdict then? "This architect's style is called classical modernism, but I think of it as quite brutal. I've taught at German universities built out of concrete blocks, breeze blocks inside and out! Oh yes, this is better."

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