Sunday, 14 February 2010

This controversy is not about access for the disabled

The forthcoming vote on whether to demolish those parts of the lift thusfar constructed is not about access to the Combination Room by the disabled. Whatever the outcome of the vote access to the Combination Room for those unable to use the stairs will be secured.

It is true, of course, that it is the University's obligations under the Disability Discrmination Act 1995 that led the Old Schools to decide to build the lift. But the Disability Discrmination Act does not require the University to build this lift in this place. The Act only requires (s. 21) the making of adjustments that are reasonable in all the circumstances of the case to secure access for the disabled. This leaves the University with a wide choice of methods whereby it complies with the Act. There are several alternative sites for the lift none of which are as intrusive as the one chosen. The wording of the Grace on which the Regent House will vote is as follows:

That all construction works for a lift into the Regent House Combination Room be removed and the building returned to its former state, and that the Council report, as soon as convenient, to the Regent House with proposals to secure reasonable access to the Combination Room and associated rooms for those unable to use the stairs.

So if the vote is carried the Council will be obliged to report on the alternative ways, equally convenient for those unable to use the stairs, in which access may be secured without despoiling the room. And one will be selected. Everyone is sensitive to the need to make good decisions about disabled access, but that is no reason to support bad ones.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Notes from Cambridge in the Oxford Magazine

Professor Anthony Edwards has written in the Oxford Magazine of the history of the Regent House University Combination Room, its architectural status and the current threat from the lift. It is reproduced here for a wider audience particularly in Cambridge. Readers new to the controversy might find it useful to read the "What the Fuss is All About" post first.

Notes from Cambridge
Oxford Magazine Eighth Week, Michaelmas Term, 2009

Showing visitors round the Old Courts of Caius requires a certain humility. Across a narrow lane to our north lies Trinity Great Court, into which one could probably fit our entire Old Courts, whilst to our south sit the 1730 Senate-House and Cockerell’s magnificent University Library built in 1837, now the Caius Library. Behind the Library, and actually joined to it, is the University’s ancient Regent House from 1400. After their tour of our Old Courts I take visitors to Trinity, but never through the Great Gate. I guide them through the gate opposite the Caius kitchens and through a little passage in the south-west corner of Great Court. Even after sixty years the explosion of space as one enters the court still takes me by surprise. It is a stunning entrance.

Unlike the Sheldonian, the Senate-House is permanently shut to visitors, so after the Caius Library (no need for humility there) I take mine straight to the Regent House, the first-floor room built as the meeting-house and chapel of the combined Regent and non-Regent masters. The Victorians had planned to pull it down as part of the rebuilding of the Old Schools of which Cockerell’s vast Library was the first phase, and the two buildings are like siamese twins. Entrance to the Regent House is through a modest doorway on a landing of Cockerell’s grand staircase which leads on up to the Caius Upper Library. Once again there is an explosion of space as one enters
the famous room. The doorway is near the end of one of its long sides, ensuring an unforgetable impression as one sees the room for the first time. It is not the medieval entrance, but one created by Cockerell out of a window embrasure. The medieval entrance is still visible diagonally across the room, a small doorway, long bricked up, originally reached by an outside staircase. Ironically though, Caius does have the best view in Cambridge. Dr Caius insisted that his pretty court should be open to the south to let in the air and light, and from a particular point in it known to every photographer one sees his renaissance Gate of Honour, and beyond it, framed by the Senate-House on the left and the Cockerell Building on the right, the great horse-chestnut tree, then King’s Chapel, and then the east front of the Old Schools with the original wall of the Regent House just visible behind it. I do not know why, but the tree is known as the Registrary’s tree; Dorothy Needham (b.1896), wife of Joseph, the Master of Caius, once told me she remembered it being planted. During the last long vacation (except we are not allowed to call it that any more) the University refurbished the Regent House, used since the 1950s as a Combination Room for members of the modern Regent House (= Congregation). Caians going up and down to the Library noticed that to the left of the entrance, part of the dais had been removed, and we supposed that some problem had been found, dry rot or leaking plumbing perhaps. One Monday morning in September I met two friends coming from taking coffee in the renovated room who told me that the work was actually preparatory to the installation of a lift planned to erupt through the floor into a box the size of four telephone kiosks tightpacked in a square in the north-east corner of the room. I could hardly believe them, and was as appalled as they were.
The Regent House is the most beautiful, the oldest, and, in the words of Willis and Clark in their Architectural
History, ‘the most important’ room belonging tothe University. Purpose-built as meeting-house and chapel, it was licensed by Pope Boniface IX, who also licensed the Caius chapel, and I have seen no evidence of it ever having been deconsecrated. It came into use in the year 1400, and was described in 1438 as being of ‘surpassing beauty’. Though it does not quite match your Divinity School in splendour, it is older, and is historically
the most important room in the universities in the English-speaking world. It is the cradle of our democracy, our Westminster Hall, built at exactly the same time that Richard II was rebuilding Westminster Hall with its fabulous hammer-beam roof, and miraculously surviving the construction of the Cockerell Building just as the Hall had survived the Westminster fire of 1834 three years earlier. Its first recorded event was in September 1401 when the Archbishop of Canterbury and his entourage made a visitation to the University during which the Chancellor, Doctors, and Masters assembled and rendered obeisance. The Archbishop then questioned the Chancellor as to whether the Statutes were being observed. (Our Board of Scrutiny should arrange a repeat.)
For its first three centuries all the business of the University was conducted in the Regent House, all the Congregations of the Regents and their discussions, votes, and disputations, as well as their Commencement ceremonies, until these grew too large and had to be moved to Great St Mary’s. But that was hardly a permanent solution for the growing University, and in 1730 the longplanned Commencement House or New Regent House was inaugurated, later to be called the Senate-House. Pressure to build anew had also come from the need for the Library to expand into the Regent House, and for the next two centuries it held part of the growing collection of books, finally ending its library duty in 1934 as the Catalogue Room when the new University Library was opened and the Regent House could once again be seen in all its uncluttered beauty. Once again it became the House of the Regents. Under the 1923 Oxford and Cambridge Act, most of the powers of the Senate were to be transferred to a House of Residents, and happily the framers of the 1926 Statutes adopted the term ‘Regent House’ instead, which is the usage that comes most readily to mind today. It is unthinkable that the symmetrical open space of the Regent House should be despoiled by a lift structure, but the unthinkable was actually happening. Nobody had told the members of the Regent House that their designated
Combination Room was to be altered; no plans had been laid on their table; no notice had appeared in the University Reporter; and no-one had remembered the statute that requires the Regents to approve by Grace any ‘substantial alteration’ to a University building. When challenged, the University maintained that the work was too insubstantial to require a Grace and declined to call a halt to it. Ten members of the Regent House then called for the matter to be put down for a Discussion as ‘a topic of concern to the University’ (in the words of the relevant Ordinance). This was unaccountably delayed until 10 November. The Registrary declined a request to display the plans for the Discussion. The speeches made were published in the Reporter of 18 November ( current/weekly/6167/section8.shtml), and contain more of the story as well as some trenchant opinions and a helpful comparison with the saga of your Divinity School statue by Professor Evans.
It is depressing to trace the bureaucratic trail. It starts, quite properly, with the Joint Committee on Disability,from where it is taken up by the Minor Works Review Group. Once it had been designated a ‘Minor Work’ nobody took much notice of it, and the Resource Management Committee approved the lift without seeing any plans (a committee unknown to Ordinances which seems to have usurped the function of the Buildings Committee of the Council and General Board which is in Ordinances and is supposed to keep an eye on these things), and without any minute to the effect that a room of huge historic significance was at risk, or that a Grace might be required. Whether that Committee works under delegated authority or via the Council I know not, and the Council minutes do not mention it, but it is said that the lift was on a list the Council saw, again without any plans. From there the proposal went directly to the City Planning Authority without approval by the Regent House. The Conservation Officer is reported as having suggested that the project should only be approved if a staircase was constructed at the same time. English Heritage said no to a staircase, but nevertheless the project was approved as a ‘Delegated decision’, so the Planning Committee did not see it either. So ends Act I of The Disgraceful Lift. Once a Minor
Work, always a Minor Work. Act II starts with the hole in the floor followed by the rumoured news that it is for
a lift, and continues with the Registrary’s defence that it is a Minor Work. It culminates in a statement by Professor A.D.Cliff at the Discussion that ‘The decision not to promote a Grace is consistent with all similar decisions taken over the last decade as regards minor works projects’. But that is economical with the truth: there never has been a decision not to promote a Grace. Noone ever looked at Statute F, I, 2. They are only minor works after all. Act III is in progress as I write. Its ending should not be in doubt, but it will be a skilful playwright who extricates the University from its predicament without embarrassment. And if he scripts the unthinkable instead, what a monument to the octocentenary celebrations it will be, a plastered sarcophagus containing the remains of both Regent Houses.
a.w.f. edwards

Thursday, 11 February 2010

What the fuss is about: before and after pictures

The print to the left shows the room as it should be with its elegant structure and form unbroken. Note the 15th century hammer beam roof and the pargetted ceiling. The photo below has the lift sketched in on the dais; it destroys the symmetry of the far end of the room and will dominate the room. Especially since the entrance is just to the left of the lift, the lift will lurk over everyone who enters the room.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Explanatory post

The Old Schools (the administration of the University of Cambridge) is in the process of constructing in the University Combination Room a lift that will look like a giant Tardis.

The University Combination Room is one of the most beautiful and elegant rooms in the University. It has been in use since early in the fifteenth century. It is of immense historical importance for it was the meeting-room and chapel of the Regent Masters from 1400. It was where the current self-governing and democratic University of Cambridge developed. It should not be despoiled in this way. Many members of the Regent House (the governing body of the University) are most concerned by this construction and have forced the issue to a vote of the full Regent House (which roughly consists of the Fellows of the Colleges and members of the academic staff).

This blog will track the debate leading up to the vote primarily for the assistance of members of the Regent House deciding how to vote. Here will be posted all kinds of relevant material including the fly-sheets, points of view as well as photo and graphics of the proposed changes.

In the meantime here is a photo of the Combination Room unsullied:

The Tardis will be built on the dais at the far end of the room.

And this is the view from a window in the room looking out on the Gate of Honour (part of Caius College) . This view will be destroyed by having the Tardis built in front of it:

The Grace on which the Regent House will vote is:

That all construction works for a lift into the Regent House Combination Room be removed and the building returned to its former state, and that the Council report, as soon as convenient, to the Regent House with proposals to secure reasonable access to the Combination Room and associated rooms for those unable to use the stairs.

More details will follow as they become available.