Tyranny of Context

Cambridge is not, on the whole, a city which respects context.

When in the late 1950s Queens’ College required a new building to house graduate and undergraduate students, it commissioned, not a building in keeping with the medieval, Jacobean and Victorian courts which surrounded it, but a building designed by Basil Spence in the new Brutalist style, named after one the college’s great alumni, Erasmus of Rotterdam.


The Erasmus Building stands now on the backs between the Mathematical Bridge and King’s College Chapel, to the puzzlement of punters and the delight of architectural aficionados – for what the building demonstrates is that Cambridge University, to repeat, is not in thrall to the tyranny of context. It does not, on the whole, erect buildings in supposed keeping with the architecture that surrounds it.

None of this is to say that all architecture which disrespects context is excellent: many architectural developments have disrespected contexts of landscape, city layout, and existing community. But there is something to be said for a fearless embrace of the new, secure in the knowledge that, in time, what is good will simply belong to wherever it happens to be. And Cambridge, down the years, has managed to flick a few Vs to the traditionalists.

In this long talk, Richard Sennett discusses the crisis of planning of the mid-twentieth century, and the difference between open and closed developments, in the course of which discussion he takes some time to develop the notion of the tyranny of context.



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