Transforming Second Court for the 21st century

"We wanted to create a modern, welcoming environment"

This summer, St John’s will be undertaking the most significant building project since the Old Divinity School redevelopment – a new social area that will revolutionise Second Court. Louise Hanzlik talks to Domestic Bursar Helen Murley and Tim Waters, Head of College Buildings, about the new Community Hub.

For more than 400 years Second Court has been at the centre of College life, soaking up the hustle and bustle under the proud gaze of its benefactress Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, whose statue sits in the western gatehouse leading into Third Court.

Described as ‘the finest Tudor Court in England’, Second Court has remained practically unchanged since 1602. That is, until now - with plans to transform the space with the addition of a sleek 21st-century Community Hub.

The project will revamp the south-west corner of the Court into a contemporary social centre, where the College community can meet, eat, drink, socialise, teach and work. The Buttery Dining Room (BDR) will be demolished, and in its place an airy dining space will be built, along with a café, bar and outdoor seated patio area. The bar will be relocated to where the JCR now stands, and the café will move to the current bar site.

It is the biggest building project since the major restoration of the Old Divinity School in 2012.

Hub team
Members of the Community Hub Working Group, including (front row, from second left) Tim Waters, Heather Hancock and Helen Murley. Credit: Nordin Ćatić

Since planning permission and Listed Building Consent were granted in November, the College has finalised its Community Hub designs and moved forward with this ambitious project, first envisaged over five years ago. Work is due to start on site in August, with the goal of opening the Hub by the end of summer 2022, ready for the new academic year.

Helen Murley, Domestic Bursar, said: “We wanted to create a modern, welcoming environment where people can meet informally, have a coffee, talk to people, and do a bit of work if they want to. It’s for students, staff and Fellows, encouraging informal interaction between all College members. We hope that it will draw people in, and people will feel it’s for them, designed by them. 

“The first spade will go into the ground hopefully during the week beginning 2 August.”

The College Masterplan was developed between 2015 and 2017 by Allies and Morrison and landscape architects J&L Gibbons, working with a senior College team. The Community Hub design was developed by Cambridge-based architects MCW and the programme has been steered by project managers Turner and Townsend, working with a Community Hub Working Group drawn from Fellows, staff and students and chaired by Dr Frank Salmon before the Master, Heather Hancock, stepped into the role in 2020.

Builders are expected to be on site from July, and the BDR will be demolished in August when fewer people are around. The sets above the bar, BDR and JCR will all be vacated for the duration of the work and the College is taking the opportunity to refurbish all the rooms. 

"We’ve been supported by a really good Working Group of staff, students and Fellows"

So what can we expect? To start, the whole space will be better integrated and more accessible, with level paths, ramps, and level flooring throughout. The buildings have been designed with sustainability and minimal environmental impact in mind. The project aims to achieve a BREEAM Excellent rating for sustainability, which is the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for masterplanning projects and buildings.

The new light and airy dining space will have a feature green wall watered by rainwater from the new top-lit, freestanding, oak-framed roof. It will have better acoustics, an improved heating and lighting system and a fully glazed wall to the patio. There will also be enhanced food offerings, with a modern take on traditional dishes. 

The patio will be redesigned and raised to create an extension to the dining room and bar. The kitchen-style garden will have new tables and chairs and in-built seating areas, with disabled access to the side, and the Grade I-Listed gate piers to the rear of the BDR will be moved to the west end of the patio, in line with Kitchen Lane and Kitchen Bridge. 

The café will serve continental breakfasts, light lunches and takeaways, with snacks available all day, and will be a relaxing place to meet and work. The wall between the BDR and café will be opened up to create one large airy space.

The bar will be somewhere to meet or to study during the day, to socialise before Hall and to have a relaxing drink later in the evening. It will have a fresh, modern design but remain comfortable and intimate, and incorporate enhanced facilities enabling both the traditional watching of sport on screen and live music. 

The College is working with interior designers to determine the fit out. The aim is to create attractive, welcoming environments that will be used differently from the start of the day through to the evening, with each space having its own character but also blending and connecting to provide a sense of cohesion.

Artist’s impression of the new patio area. Credit: MCW Architects
Artist’s impression of the new patio area. Credit: MCW Architects

“This project has been a huge amount of work, particularly for Tim Waters, Head of College Buildings, and the external design team. Tim has worked tirelessly with the architects and wider team to get the original concepts drawn up and ensure the historic building consents and planning permission were achieved,” said Helen. 

“We’ve been supported by a really good Working Group of staff, students and Fellows who have provided very valuable input. The students who have worked with us have really taken the responsibility seriously, given up significant amounts of time and have consulted more widely among their peers when needed. We are also very lucky to have the support of a very generous donor who has provided a significant portion of the money for the project.” 

Tim said: “This is the first major capital project to be delivered from the College’s Masterplan. It’s been quite a complicated project to plan due its location - we have had to deal with planning issues, design a scheme that will be used and hopefully loved by students, Fellows and staff, and meet our sustainability objectives.”

During construction, the bar and BDR will be housed in First Court in a semi-permanent structure. This will go up in June and be used for end-of-term events, with the BDR setting up home there in July. “We recognise that food is extremely important to the College and we will ensure that a good service is continuously maintained,” said Helen. For the duration of the work, the JCR will be relocated to the Dirac Room in the Fisher Building.

Construction traffic will use the Queen’s Road gate and be restricted to the start and end of each day to avoid disruption. “There will be management around the crossroads by Bin Brook, so people will still be able to walk across to the Trinity Piece Gate. The gate piers on the patio will also be temporarily removed to protect them,” said Tim.

When complete, the Community Hub will be the beating heart of life at St John’s. 

“The project team has worked tirelessly throughout the Covid pandemic to keep the project on track to start in summer 2021,” said Tim. “We hope to deliver a facility which is a real asset to the College community. I’m very excited to see the plans come off the page and become a reality.”

Find out more on the College intranet.

*This article first appeared in the Easter Term 2021 edition of Eagle Eye.*

Published: 8/6/2021

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