For a budget flophouse, the Cambridge Travelodge looked like a cool and classy piece of work. But then Gus Alexander found out what happened when the lights went down …

For a number of years, players in the budget hotel business have been trying to develop sites in Cambridge. And for a number of years, Cambridge council has been resisting them. Budget boxes might be okay next to a motorway service station, they said, but not in our fair city.

The East Lane leisure park, built on the site of a former cattle market to the east of the city centre, was an opportunity for the planners to put their money (or rather the developer’s money) where their mouths were. Turnstone Estates had agreed to develop the site with bowling alleys, a Multiplex cinema and other irresistible leisure attractions, and the council effectively gave it a site for a budget hotel for free on condition that it put “something decent” there. The developer and its architects, Covell Matthews Cambridge, established a brief with a hotel operator, and organised a competition using some local “young architects” recommended by the planners, as well as one or two outsiders.

In the event, the proposals by Proctor and Matthews were chosen. The practice has a reputation for making spirited residential developments for public and private sector clients that lift the expectations beyond the sub-Victorian exercises in stretcher brickwork and catalogue windows favoured by most developers in the field. In its Cambridge hotel and its modular housing for Peabody (see Building, 3 October, page 38), Proctor and Matthews has proved that decent innovative design pays, and has raised the game of otherwise formulaic architecture.

Proctor and Matthews has designed a long, thin six-storey building with a podium underneath, supported on caissons at either end. The elevation of the upper floors is largely framed in glass: horizontal with projecting sound baffles at the front, and vertical with illuminated light panels at the back (see “Fancy facades”, page 45). From the railway line the building looks like a giant Donald Judd sculpture, with simple steel rectangles assembled one above the other in a controlled palette of lighter and darker blues. At the side of each horizontal window is a sound baffle, a square panel about the size of a shower tray, faced in powder-coated steel, and finished in the same palette of blues. These help to dissipate noise from the nearby road and add a striking visual component to the linear form of the building.

The rear elevation is seen from the former cattle ground, now a large, indeed rather too large, piazza with more granite setts than one can imagine. Most of the buildings enclosing the piazza, including a bowling alley, a multiplex, half a dozen restaurants and one of the biggest night clubs in East Anglia come alive at night.

Proctor and Matthews has done much to raise the game of otherwise formulaic architecture

By day, the hotel facade is a restrained exercise in rectangular framed glazing, but at night it turns into something else entirely, when the tall thin panels between the windows of the rooms are illuminated from the back and the whole thing glows like an underlit dancefloor in a night club. The brief from the planners was that the whole structure had to be double-glazed and air-conditioned to insulate it from the noise of the road by day and the high spirits of Cambridge youths on their way home at four in the morning. This obviated the need for opening windows on the facades which meant the flat, gridded glass could be made to light up like a pinball machine.

Inside, the rooms are laid out extremely simply along opposite sides of a long corridor naturally lit at either end. The rooms themselves have to be built to an exact specification laid down by the operator, and if the gap between the main toilet roll holder, and the spare toilet roll holder is more that 2 mm out, the firing squad will be summoned. This isn’t really surprising – the architect’s brief was not to reinvent the hotel business. Still, I have never understood why it doesn’t make economic sense in this sort of exercise to build the joinery out of something more substantial than what we get here. If the veneer was any thinner, it would come in a tin.

However, what would otherwise be a formulaic exercise in taking money off people while they are asleep has been transformed by the natural lighting afforded by the stretched rectangular windows. At the back they run from floor to ceiling, and on the front they span the whole width of the room. These make such a huge difference that nothing else in the room really matters. The rooms are pretty decent, and not very expensive. Even so, go much below this and you are sleeping in Mrs Would-be-Hilton’s nylon sheets with a 40 W bulb and a leaking Triton shower enclosure jammed under the eaves.

The architects had ambitions for a huge illuminated sign along the roof (scuppered by the planners) and to have the lobby, with its underlit blue glass flooring, extending further into the car park and covered with a glass canopy (scuppered by the developer). Both ideas would have given the building considerably more presence from the front. Most of the surrounding roads and buildings are pretty scuzzy, so this would have given the whole operation a lift, particularly at night.

A formulaic exercise in taking money off people why they are asleep is transformed by the natural lighting

In the event it all works very well. Proctor and Matthews obtained planning consent and handed over the project to the original architects, although it was allowed to maintain control of the details of the exterior. It was built without any major revisions and the planners do not appear to object to the slight controversy engendered by the building. The hotel has contributed to the square in a way that the standard brick box with its “traditional”, essentially residential aesthetic never could.

There is a slight worry that East Anglian youth may try to prise the hand-sized limestone rocks out of the steel caissons, and use them as projectiles to satisfy a need to enjoy the sound of broken glass. So far this hasn’t happened, but measures against it are being considered.

What this exercise proves is that there is no form of drossy building type that cannot be radically improved by the application of fresh architectural thought. The more that planners insist on this, the more likely it is that formulaic briefs can generate buildings of real quality.

Fancy facades

To provide the coloured facade panels, manufacturer Corus used a new type of steel-coating technology. The east-facing facade has vertically-oriented steel cladding panels measuring 2450 × 740 mm in three different shades of blue.

One of these is a standard Corus Colorcoat pre-coated finish in Bahama Blue; the others are “specials”, produced on a flat-bed powder coating line at Corus’ South Wales plant. Until recently this would have been prohibitively expensive for small quantity runs. These panels are integrated with corresponding storey height windows and slim vertical light boxes that emit an orange glow at night. The different coloured panels on this facade are randomly placed in a deliberate attempt to avoid regimentation.

By contrast, the west-facing facade has 3710 × 850 mm horizontally-oriented panels, three for each storey height. This time, two types of steel and two types of timber-faced panels are randomly spaced. The steel panels are a mixture of Corus Colorcoat Celestia pre-finished steel in Orion colour and brushed stainless steel finish. The timber-faced panels are stained Sapele and Oak. Window “blinkers” stand out from the facade and are finished in the same three shades of blue-coated steel as the east facade, giving what the architect describes as a “peeled back” effect.

Facade team
Pre- and post-coated steel: Corus
Cladding panel manufacturer: AME Facades
Cladding contractor: Proclad
Light boxes: Pearce Signs