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

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