Clocktower Square, Radley College Design Engine

Victorian traditions are alive and well at Radley College, where Design Engine keeps the redbrick faith

Brick contextualism: new mixed-use building works with its neighbours.
Brick contextualism: new mixed-use building works with its neighbours.

Radley College, in the countryside near Oxford,  is one of those ultra-English bastions of privilege, or centres of excellence if you prefer – only slightly less well known perhaps than Eton, Harrow or Westminster.

The college dates back to 1847 when it took over a Georgian country house and started to build well-considered additions, all red brick with stone dressings. Now the removal of a redundant prefab building in Clocktower Square has freed up space for a new insertion by Winchester-based Design Engine, which was behind the radical replanning of Oxford Brookes University (RIBAJ, November 2012). 

The college brief was for a very mixed-use building with 10 classrooms; a new gallery with secure display and storage for the very active art department; and a social space – a lounge/cafe, combining aspects of sixth form common-room with an informal place for parents to meet their children and/or the staff.  In Radley’s somewhat Hogwartsian system, which segregates pupils by boarding houses known as ‘socials’, this is some leap forward. 

The three functions of the £4.2m new building are separately expressed, but tied together by a language of redbrick colonnades that join the rhythm of the flanking buildings. On the Clocktower Square side, its parapet level is determined by the lower building, its roofscape by the higher. A glazed skirt separates old and new buildings and brings in daylight. It makes for a calm, ordered trabeated frontage with full-height glazing behind the colonnade, and topped by the long metal-clad light/ventilation boxes on its three hipped roofs.  Inside, the atrium of the main social space is full-height, a staircase rising through it  to the upper classroom level and a more formal ‘boardroom’ above the coffee shop.

A calm new social space makes the most visually of its CLT construction.
A calm new social space makes the most visually of its CLT construction.

This building makes full use of the material of the moment, CLT or cross-laminated timber,  exposed in the roofs of social space and classrooms. These are staggered in section, five above and five below, permitting covered colonnades on each side. They are distinguished by their generous size and ventilation shafts that rise like medieval chimneys from the side of each classroom to end in a row of lantern vents on top: natural ventilation was a key part of the design. Semi-pyramidal CLT roof soffits on the upper level are especially successful. 

On the more domestic-scaled eastern side of the complex, where the classrooms make a cloister-like edge to a green, is the art gallery – a late insertion into the design. Slipped in be­tween the existing design technology block and the new classrooms, a very shallow ridge-and-furrow roof unites the two buildings. 

This is a modern reinterpretation of the Victorian redbrick tradition, and it is handled with due deference to the scale of its surroundings.  It is intelligent and unfussy, though with some niggling issues of build quality here and there. Not so long ago state schools could also legitimately expect facilities on this level. Perhaps, one day, they will again.