A walk down Creativity Street

The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street. Image © Andrew Dunn (http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/), reproduced under the Creative Commons license.

Trumpington Street, Cambridge, has been one of my favourite streets ever since I first encountered it, a third of a century ago. I like it for its visual qualities, but most of all I like it for its creativity – by which I mean both (a) the creativity embodied there and (b) its ability to inspire creativity.

The street has developed – in syncopated fashion – chronologically. The north end, in the heart of the city, is old. There one finds colleges such as Peterhouse and Pembroke, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries respectively.*

A little further south come contrasting 19th century landmarks – the Fitzwilliam Museum and the old Addenbrookes Hospital (the latter apparently incorporating some 18th century building) – together with a variety of elegant terraces.

Further south again comes  the Leys School, dating from the later 19th century. Evidently farmland was released for development only slowly: walking along the street, one travels a few hundred years in a few hundred yards.

So the built heritage is rich. But that isn’t primarily what I wish to celebrate here. My sights are trained more on the way that the street in effect provides a typology of creativity.

Towards a topological typology of creativity

To show you what I mean, let me take you on a  quick tour. We can begin towards the northern end, with a monument to the creativity of the written word and the book arts – the Pitt Building, for many years the home of Cambridge University Press.

A few hundred yards down on the west side, the above-mentioned museum (‘the Fitz’) celebrates the visual arts – not only in its collections (paintings, drawing, manuscripts, sculpture, glass, pottery, and so on), but also in its own architecture, which Pevsner describes as an example of “the turn away from the purity of neo-Greek towards a Victorian baroque”.

Almost directly opposite, the former hospital (also mentioned above) is now the Judge Business School (’the Judge’). It thus celebrates the creativity of business, especially through the study of entrepreneurship and innovation.** And it provides an example of a further form of creativity that is much in evident on the street, namely the re-purposing of buildings.

Then we come, back on the west side, to the university’s Department of Engineering, based in a group of buildings dating mostly from the mid-century. Pevsner describes their effect as ‘a little restless’ and ‘regrettably bitty’: he would have done better to say ‘ugly’. Indeed, in their contrast to the Fitz, they are almost proudly ugly – as if to say, “No aesthetes here, thank you: we do grease and soot!” In its own terms, however, the place is highly creative in its research. And, in fact, those terms have begun to converge with those of other creative centres along the street – today perhaps less grease and soot, certainly more innovation and design.

Our tour ends back on the east side, a few further hundred yards further south, with a tribute to organic creativity in the form of the Botanic Garden. There the flora vary from the local – with a collection of fenland plants – to the exotic, with glasshouse plants from far-flung places around the globe.

Linking all these places is one further type of creativity, namely town-planning – here in the form of Hobson’s Conduit, a watercourse constructed in the 16th century to improve sanitation in the city. Once rather larger than it is now – it constituted a major engineering project – the conduit still forms a sizable stream as it runs alongside the botanic Garden. Further north, it takes the form of gutters running along both sides of the street up to the Pitt Building. They broaden the street, creating a sense of spaciousness.

Dynamics of creativity

So the street is rich in the types of creativity it embodies. Yet I find it isn’t so much the sites of embodied creativity in themselves that make the street inspiring. Inspiration springs rather from movement between the sites.

As, for example, I walk cross the road from the Judge – where I have the pleasure of mentoring PhD students on writing – to the Fitz, my mind starts to explore the relationship between their respective forms of creativity: We know how the museum looks from Nikolaus Pevsner’s art-historical point of view, but how does it look from a business perspective? What are its revenues and costs – and how could one improve the ratio? What forms of capital does it possess? What kind of entrepreneurship (broadly defined) lay behind its foundation?

And if, having reached the Fitz, we turn to look back across the road, we can examine the business school from an aesthetic viewpoint: How successful has the postmodernist refurbishment of the former hospital been? (’Very’, many of its users would say – though I doubt that Pevsner would have judged the Judge wholly convincing.) And how do the aesthetics of the building affect the discovery or construction of new knowledge within it? (Though Cambridge is often associated with formal styles of education, the Judge lends itself to informal learning: balcony alcoves equipped with tables and flipcharts facilitate informal learning through group projects.)

And, whichever direction we look in, the question arises: what is the relationship between various forms of value? Thus it is in the movement between the various sites and their types of creativity that I find the street most inspiring. We live in interdisciplinary times and Trumpington Street, Cambridge, is ideally configured to inspire the kind of creativity they call for.


*For those with local knowledge, I should explain that I have ignored the street further north than Pembroke because, as it becomes a cul-de-sac and transforms itself into King’s Parade, it feels to me a different kind of place.

** Notably in research by Efstathia Pitsa.


One Response to “A walk down Creativity Street”

  1. […] on the question of what makes a place creative. The first substantive post in that series (‘A walk down creativity street‘, 25 Mar 2012) considered the case of Trumpington Street in Cambridge, UK. This, the second, […]

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