Kettle's Yard used to be a row of four almost derelict cottages in a rundown area of Cambridge before Jim and Helen Ede bought them in 1956 and threaded them together. A veteran of World War I, Jim Ede worked as an Assistant Keeper at the Tate Gallery for 15 years. In a 1931 radio interview, he was already describing his ideal of 'a room to live in': distempered white, left empty at first to see how it reacted with the available light (whether from window or fireplace), then furnished only as necessary. Any pictures and objects would be 'placed in such a way that I can enjoy them'. It was as if he was testing his principles for the building's future.
25 years later, the Edes's collection – including works by modernist luminaries (some of them friends) such as Helen Frankenthaler, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicolson, alongside ceramics, shells and pebbles collected on the Norfolk coast – would be held in perfect aesthetic equilibrium by the simplicity of the setting. The Edes made their collection available for any interested students or passers-by to visit (or even to borrow from) and, sometimes, to have tea with them. The need for more space gave rise to the 1970 extension to the cottages – a mature architectural note on a very different scale but equally calibrated, the work of Sir Leslie Martin and David Owers.
Owers has been a source of great wisdom for Jamie Fobert Architects, whose newly renovated Kettle's Yard opens to the public on 10 February. Fobert first became involved with the project in 2004, winning a competition to design new education spaces for the then Director, Michael Harrison. In 2012 his successor, Andrew Nairne, asked the practice for a more radical transformation of the space to replace a succession of modest afterthoughts – galleries, shop and ancillary space – that had grown up, seemingly piecemeal and never entirely assured. The decision to start afresh was difficult, but undoubtedly the right one: the major rebuild would leave the house and 1970 extension intact, while everything else up to the boundary of St Peter's churchyard, to the north, and Castle Street, to the north-east, would be cleared.
Yet, the transformation has been achieved, seemingly, by sleight of hand. Jamie Fobert Architects inserted a set of entirely new buildings which, until you set off for a room in the four-storey education centre or press on past the entrance area towards the pair of full height white-walled exhibition galleries, you scarcely suspect are there at all. The effect is the result of adherence to a palette of materials and forms that spill over and bond the old extension and the new front of house.
The 'white' Cambridge brick offers a tonal range from buff to beige-pink to pale mustard yellow, and the floors in the extension melt into the new, consolidated or cleaned walls and flooring beyond. Brick shades into finely polished concrete, concrete cedes to stitched blackened steel on the stair balustrade, oak benches and shelves recall Jim Ede's gimlet eye for simple, high quality, furniture in the house.
Fobert's careful changes of level and angle around the building quietly mediate between old and new. Thoughtful details such as low-level handrails for stairs which children are likely to use and seating on a long low brick bench at the entrance for those who want or need to wait, are humane, observant touches. Ede's founding principles and Nairne's grasp of the needs of his modern visiting public align in Fobert's adjustments.
The appeal of the original Kettle's Yard always lay in its scale and dimension. In the house, visitors were encouraged to sit as part of the hang was at eye level when seated. Following the Martin and Owers's extension, everything was scaled up. The re-hung collection reflects the architectural biography of the place: stairs lead to a library table in the upper gallery, while in the downstairs hall sits a grand piano, its lid slightly impressed from sustaining the weight of a Brancusi head for almost 70 years.
Visitors now leave directly from the gallery (rather than wending back through the house and tangling with the incoming visitors on the tiny cottage stairs) finding themselves back in the new visitor area. One new gallery is top-lit like the original extension; a full height window/door leads onto Castle Street, and the basement-level Clore Education Centre also has a window onto the street.
Outside, where a finely lettered milestone ('14 miles to Godmanchester') takes pride of place on the reinstated masonry, you are in a different place, with a surprising sense of privacy. The physical enclosure of Kettle's Yard, now so well marked despite its overt kerb presence, preserves that essential ingredient of Ede's creation: a place hidden away, a space just for you. The entrance to the cottage, by its rustic door, up steps and directly ahead, likewise remains unchanged. Visitors still enter by ringing the bell, although now they have timed tickets.
The opening exhibition takes its starting point from words Naum Gabo wrote in 1944 replying to the English critic Herbert Read. In a time of war and his own displacement Gabo puzzled: 'What do my works contribute to society in general, and to our time in particular?' He comforted himself with a reminder that 'the image of the world can be different.' Sparked by this phrase, Nairne and his colleague Sarah Lowndes have curated 'Actions'. It brings together an impressive roll call of artists, a core of those long represented at the house but also ranging across generations and disciplines. As Nairne writes: 'the aim is to create a gathering of artistic expressions, to see what happens when a myriad of diverse voices come together.' The setting, the 'white cube' formulation of the two main galleries, is Fobert's interpretation of Ede's hope, expressed in an interview in 1990 (the year of his death), for the future of his creation. Ede built a white modernist house in Tangier to his own design in 1936, his ideal 'haven of rest in an over-complicated life' as he once wrote. Ede was an architect in all but the professional designation – and the latest developments at Kettle's Yard can be seen as the culmination in his plan or, possibly, just another step forward.
‘Actions. The image of the world can be different’, the opening show at the newly-renovated Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, runs from 10 February – 6 May.
Main image: Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 2018, renovated by Jamie Fobert Architects. Courtesy: Kettle's Yard, Cambridge; photograph: © Hufton + Crow
Gillian Darley is an architecture writer and broadcaster based in London, UK. She is the author of several books, including Villages of Vision: A Study of Strange Utopias (2007) and the President of the Twentieth Century Society.