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A world of its own

With its new John Henry Brookes building, the other Oxford university has a grand physical representation of its proud academic achievement – in thoroughly modern civic centre form

London casts a long shadow over the architecture of the UK. In this year’s crop of 56 national and EU RIBA Awards, for instance, few practices do not have a London base, and of those from England only one. That is is Winchester-based Design Engine, and the building in question is at Oxford Brookes University. Which just happens to be on the London Road.

The £83m project, at the Headington campus of the university to the east of the city, fully deserves its national accolade and proves that the capital might call most of the shots when it comes to the big, high-profile projects – but not all of them. Indeed, it made it to the RIBA’s 15-strong ‘midlist’ for the Stirling Prize in what is a strong year, and therefore is officially one of the top 15 buildings in the UK (and by Brits in the EU). Possibly its slightly disappointing exterior halted its progress further, because otherwise this is a strikingly successful building.

Looking down from the library wing past the hanging lecture theatre to the student forum far below.
Looking down from the library wing past the hanging lecture theatre to the student forum far below. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

This is a very bold move by Brookes (as it is generally known). It gives this former polytechnic – academically one of the most successful of the early 1990s wave of new universities – a gateway presence as well as a varied chunk of new facilities, from library through lecture rooms to student union, cafés and restaurants.  That is a lot of programme and its great achievement is the way it brings all these aspects together, playing the various elements off against each other to generate an exceptionally rich and satisfying interior. At concept stage the architect reduced all this to a simple block model: a central, glowing box interpenetrated by ‘pegs’ of accommodation reaching out to the wider campus. One of these ‘pegs’ consists of the earlier thorough refurbishment and extension  of the 1950s Abercrombie wing of the university (RIBA Journal, November 2012).

 

The feel inside is very like the current generation of civic centres with their combination of outward and inward facing elements

Although it will be filed under ‘higher education’, take a look at how this complex works and you realise that it qualifies as a mixed-use development that’s essentially a civic centre. Consider: there is a grand entrance plaza in the form of a gently sloping ramp, taking you up from the aforesaid London Road to the entrance. A Corten-clad colonnade of shops on your left takes you there under shelter if needed – and sets up one of the leitmotifs of the building as this band of Corten snakes its ribbon-like way right through the complex.  The feel inside – the library, the cafes, the expressed wedge of the auditorium, the view down through to a green courtyard beyond, the teaching and meeting rooms – is very like the current generation of civic centres with their combination of outward and inward facing elements.

The entrance plaza is a gently sloping ramp flanked by a Cor-Ten colonnade.
The entrance plaza is a gently sloping ramp flanked by a Cor-Ten colonnade. · Credit: Tim Crocker

The ramp has a twofold function. Its rise means that you arrive at first floor level, which shortens journey distances, makes security easier for the bustling atrium floor below, and generally energises your view of the building. That in turn makes a void beneath the ramp that is used as the labyrinthine cool-air intake for the lecture theatre that hangs so dramatically within the building. This is part of a sustainability policy that includes exposed thermal-mass structure – both precast and insitu – and careful orientation and variation to the solid/void ratio of the facades (overall 42% glazed). There are green and brown roofs, a 600 m2 array of photovoltaics, a combined heating and cooling plant, rainwater harvesting and a Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS) which means that there is no increase in run-off as a result of this densification of building on the site.  Specification was done with reference to the BRE Green Guide. All this adds up to a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rated building.

 
New courtyard landscape comes into its own in Graduation Week.
New courtyard landscape comes into its own in Graduation Week. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

Not, I would imagine, that the students or staff will necessarily notice much of this because this is not a building that wears a hair shirt. On the contrary, it seems opulent in the best sense, which is the generous organisation of space. The ‘wow’ moment is when you enter the building and look down into the lower area known as the ‘Forum’ while above you is the concertina-like form of the lecture theatre, and facing you is the end of the library. This is where all the ‘pegs’ come together and it all helps to generate a very dynamic space in which the enormous volume – 20.6m from floor to roof, a few inches higher than the nave of Wells Cathedral – is put to good use. There is, for instance, a sitting-out space on top of the lecture theatre, accessed via a bridge from the library.

 

The main space is intersected by the university’s various functions including the concertina-like box of a lecture theatre.
The main space is intersected by the university’s various functions including the concertina-like box of a lecture theatre. · Credit: Nick Kane

Diagonal views from level to level within and through the building were paying off when I visited in graduation week – when the whole place was swarming with gowned, mortar-boarded students and their families. The forum with its café was bustling, people were spilling out into the relandscaped courtyard or the seating of the entrance ramp, and of course a million selfies were being taken. Never underestimate the importance of space and drama to the student experience: although necessarily much more tightly planned, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock student centre at London’s LSE performs the same function.

Away from this you get a run of standard student teaching rooms and fairly unremarkable student union quarters (though landscaping of a further courtyard in the masterplan will transform these)  but there is an emphatic end-stop to the composition: the refectory in its glazed Corten pavilion, raised to give views over the adjacent playing fields.  It may only be a cafeteria, but in quality of space and finish it wouldn’t disgrace a college in the other Oxford.

The colonnade flanking the entrance plaza provides retail units and a covered way from the road to the entrance.
The colonnade flanking the entrance plaza provides retail units and a covered way from the road to the entrance. · Credit: Tim Crocker

I mentioned the facades. Of unitised construction, these tend towards the bland – although crisply detailed, the main approach facade has something of the business park about it, for instance. Where it gets interesting is where it has been broken down, the box eroded – on the western flank where a lot of planning negotiations with demanding residential neighbours took place. A vertical sawtooth arrangement for the library allows daylight in without overlooking the locals. The fritting on the glazed fins, taking its pattern from plant-science cell structure, helps to make a busy and curiously satisfying promenade along what is pretty much the back of the building.

  • Facade
    Facade · Credit: Nick Kane
  • Oxford Brookes sawtooth library glazing.
    Oxford Brookes sawtooth library glazing. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Left Inside the lecture theatre: visual connection is made with the rest of the complex.
    Left Inside the lecture theatre: visual connection is made with the rest of the complex. · Credit: Nick Kane
  • The Food Hall overlooks local playing fields.
    The Food Hall overlooks local playing fields. · Credit: Nick Kane
  • Both outside and in, patches of vivid colour are used to help orientation.
    Both outside and in, patches of vivid colour are used to help orientation. · Credit: Nick Kane
  • Looking out over the Forum to the central courtyard.jpg
    Looking out over the Forum to the central courtyard.jpg · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Reception area - up to the lecture theatre, down to the Forum.
    Reception area - up to the lecture theatre, down to the Forum. · Credit: Nick Kane
  • Looking from the library wing back across the atrium.
    Looking from the library wing back across the atrium. · Credit: Nick Kane
  • It's as much a civic centre as a university hub.
    It's as much a civic centre as a university hub. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
 
The John Henry Brookes building reflects well on both client and architect. It is a place of learning, administration and relaxation that works at various speeds and various levels of privacy from the ultra-public to the ultra-concentrated. It gives the institution a focus and a sense of physical stature that it previously lacked. Not quite Stirling-shortlistable, given the competition this year?  Never mind: if there’s any justice this should bring Design Engine to the attention of quite a few academic and civic institutions around Europe. 
 

 
Section and plan of the new building
Section and plan of the new building

IN NUMBERS

£83m: total contract cost

£3,413: cost per m2

24,320m2: area

15.8kg: Kg/CO2/m3

BREEAM Excellent

 


 

Credits

Credits

Client: Oxford Brookes University

Architect: Design Engine Architects

Structural and civil engineer: Ramboll UK

Environmental services, fire consulant: Grontmij

Landscape architect: Land Use Consultants

Specialist lighting consultant: Speirs & Major

Catering consultant: Tricon Foodservice Consultants

Signage consultant: Holmes Wood

Acoustic consultant: Sandy Brown Associates

Access consultant: QMP

Facade access consultant: Reef

Project manager and cost consultant: Turner & Townsend

 

 

Contractors

Main contractor: Laing O'Rourke

Concrete structure: Expanded. Oran

Pre-cast concrete stairs: Bison

Structural steelwork: Bourne Engineering, London Engineering

MEPH services: Crownhouse

Facade: Focchi

Stone cladding: Vetter

Roofing: Roofline

Maintenance and access systems: Facade Hoists

Hard landscaping: Vetter

Soft landscaping: Laing O’Rourke

Stone flooring: Vetter

Flooring: Axiom

Carpentry, internal doors: SJ Eastern

Joinery: MJM

WC fit-out: MJM

Internal cladding: SAS

Internal glazed partitions: Planet

Dry-lining and ceilings: BDL

Blockwork: Laing O’Rourke

Painting and decorating: Harvey

Architectural metalwork: Glazzard

Glass bridges: Littlehampon Welding

Catering fit-out: C&C

Lifts: Kone

Security services: Contact Security

Audiovisual systems: ProAV

Suppliers

Suppliers

Acoustic metal ceilings: SAS

Acoustic internal cladding panels: Decoustics

Internal timber doorsets: Leaderflush Shapland

Internal sliding partitions: Alcowall

Stone: Marshalls

Fibre-concrete cladding: Rieder

Curtain walling systems: Focchi

Glass louvred ventilators: Colt

External louvres: Renson

Internal blinds: Levolux

Lighting DAL, Zumtobel, Enliten

Raised access flooring: Kingspan

Fire curtains: Cooper Fire

Firestopping: Kilnbridge

Loose furniture: Broadstock