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One observatory, many views

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Rafael Vinõly’s 2005 masterplan for Radcliffe Observatory Quarter united four humanities, a mathematics institute and a library in Oxford’s largest concentration of academic faculties. But, says Jan-Carlos Kucharek, funding delays, the arrival of architects and the appointment of a masterplan guardian has seen it completely rethought

Reconfigured ROQ masterplan as adopted.
Reconfigured ROQ masterplan as adopted.

At the end of this month, the design proposal for Oxford University’s £30m Blavatnik School of Government, by architect Herzog de Meuron, will be submitted to the city planners. Funded by billionaire American industrialist Leonard Blavatnik, it’s the latest piece in the jigsaw of the University’s Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ) masterplan, forming part of a 20 year programme to transform the redundant 10-acre Radcliffe Infirmary site into the university’s largest concentration of academic faculties. The £1.25bn masterplan,  proposed by Rafael Viñoly Architects in 2005, but substantially modified since, is designed to ensure the university’s academic pre-eminence.


James Wyatt’s 1776 Radcliffe Observatory, a mildly ostentatious wedding cake of a tower, forms the prime focus of this zone of the city. It sits at the centre of the recently-merged post graduate Green Templeton College at the north east edge of the ROQ site, and is surrounded by different urban ‘givens’ – St Anne’s college to the west, Somerville to the south, and the residential Jericho area to the east. The ROQ site, complete with its 18th century Infirmary building, is the setting for a new Humanities faculty, bringing  together English, Theology, History and Philosophy, a new Mathematical Institute, and a library second in size only to the Bodleian. Here, down from Hawkins Brown’s new Jericho Health Centre and next to the portico of HJ Underwood’s 1836 St Paul’s church on Walton St, the School of Government will form the south western edge to this new academic quarter.

So far, only a diaphanous west view of the new building’s stacked floors of concentric circles, yellowed like a faded watercolour on vellum, have been seen. Ascan Mergenthaler, Herzog de Meuron senior partner, says that for a school designed to educate the next generation of political leaders, the circle was the obvious form: ‘Historically, it’s always been associated with the spirit of democracy, which is why it forms the DNA of this design’. He explains how the plan’s circles are carved out in section from basement lecture spaces to first floor teaching area, creating open ‘zones of exchange’, with the two storey library crowning the building and cheekily pipping the city’s usually sacrosanct 23m Carfax Tower height. But while they liked the formal nature of the circle, ‘it was not anchoring the building to the street. It was only when we made the teaching floor orthogonal to Walton Street that the building began to work.’ It does, both as entrance to building and as gatehouse from street to site. 

Rafael Viñoly’s original proposal, which linked the Observatory to the Oxford University Press building.
Rafael Viñoly’s original proposal, which linked the Observatory to the Oxford University Press building.

‘The client made Niall McLaughlin ‘Masterplan Guardian’; Viñoly wrote to BD that “the current iteration is not one that RVA recognises as its own”.’

The sepia-like quality to the elevation is, Mergenthaler says, due to its double skin facade, a partially reflective outer skin and an inner skin of timber, etched glass or champagne coloured aluminium, creating depth and ‘activating the facade’. No stone here then, but the tall, narrow module of the glazing is, he claims, inspired by the east elevation of the Bodleian’s satisfyingly unsettling Proscholium.

But it is the Blavatnik’s east elevation facing the still-unseen proposed ‘Library Square’ that may lack the Proscholium’s assured resolution – simply because the western context off which Herzog de Meuron feeds dissolves away to nothing on the east, due to the library’s and Humanities faculty’s lack of funding. Mergenthaler admits it’s ‘difficult to imagine and design for as none of it is actually there’ – except architect Bennetts Associates’ 2010 planning permission for the 29,000m2 facility.

Associate director Peter Fisher admits the two intersecting forms of teaching and research space projecting four floors above the two-floor partially sunken library are still in funding limbo, but there’s still every intention to build it. You’d hope so – the building and its huge copper clad eye of glass, that pops above ground to wink at Wyatt’s telescope tower, is the centre piece of the masterplan.


Herzog de Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government: west elevation to Jericho’s Walton Street.
Herzog de Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government: west elevation to Jericho’s Walton Street.

Challenging the masterplan
In the invited competition with David Chipperfield, Wilkinson Eyre and KPF, Bennetts was the only firm to challenge the masterplan’s assumption that the whole faculty sit on a raised plinth that ran across the site. ‘We felt it was important to enter the library through a glazed entrance at grade and so used the natural upward slope of the site to the east and sloped the site down to the entrance of the library on the west end to make the upper basement feel like more of a ground floor plan’, says Fisher. This orientation floor then leads to double height spaces that act as individual faculty entrances, with views down to basement seminar spaces. Walk on to the library and the vista will be straight through to the Observatory itself. Rooflights and lanterns drawing light into the lower levels abound. ‘We wanted to pull the library out of the ground and to create internal courtyards and atria,’ explains Fisher. ‘The staggered atria for the different faculties creates distinctions internally between spaces. We also felt that externally, for a library of this size and importance, having no real external presence was problematic’. But from the outside, its two L and U shaped, local Clipsham stone-clad blocks intersecting, there’s no doubting the scale of the Humanities faculty proposal, or indeed the scale of the hole that its absence creates. 

It’s fortunate then that Viñoly’s 12,000m2 Mathematics Institute, on the east side of the ROQ between the Radcliffe Observatory and the Infirmary, is rising apace. One of the university’s largest departments, the new, naturally ventilated building is set to house over 1,250 students and academics. With below-ground seminar rooms, three lecture halls and over 300 sound-proofed study rooms, it’s not all work however. ‘They’re big on rituals – every day at a certain time they all meet up and take tea,’ says RVA project architect Bruno Toledo. ‘It’s why we created the senior common room at first floor level above the central glazed entrance area linking the two wings of the faculty. It allows the opportunity to enjoy spaces to meet and exchange ideas as well as offering spaces of real seclusion,’ he adds. Its 3.3m structural grid of bronze metallic and glazed panels will be accentuated on all four sides by precast fins of reconstituted Clipsham stone. Running from 3-5 storeys, it’s designed to respect local building heights and, according to English Heritage, to frame the listed buildings on the masterplan site. Completing next summer, it will have its own temporary library, waiting for the time variable of the main library to resolve itself – part of the site’s awkward ‘unsimultaneous’ equation.

But perhaps the time gaps are ultimately in the masterplan’s interest. Oxford is nothing if not a cityscape brought about through the accretions of history, with formal and informal adjacencies – and recognition of this is what brought changes to Viñoly’s initial masterplan. In its axiality, the plan bore more relationship to Hausmann’s Paris than Oxford, its Beaux Arts references unsettling the client enough for it to appoint architect Niall McLaughlin ‘Masterplan Guardian’ to completely rethink it – whereupon Viñoly wrote to BD in September 2009 to clarify that ‘the current iteration is not one that RVA recognises as its own.’

In terms of the blocks, the change might not look so radical, but there is a lot riding on the subtle shifts between buildings that create a wholly different experience on traversing the site. The beauty of Oxford, it turns out, is as much about views missed as ones grasped. The view driven through the Maths Institute from the Infirmary to the Observatory was a modern English Heritage demand, which seems at odds with how the townscape developed. McLaughlin cannot discuss the final masterplan he co-ordinated, but Bennetts’ Peter Fisher has no doubt about his input:  ‘In terms of general planning forms, this incarnation is more meandering and picturesque – glimpsed views are everywhere’. And as far as they can be for a co-ordinated development like this, ‘things are more accidental, more incidental.’ Objects are not just presented; blocks shift relative to each other and spaces come into view experientially. 

Approaching the ROQ from Woodstock Road, to the east. In front  is Bennett Associates’ ‘eye’ from the library to the Observatory.
Approaching the ROQ from Woodstock Road, to the east. In front is Bennett Associates’ ‘eye’ from the library to the Observatory.


The masterplan demands much imagination from the visitor, but perhaps the experience can be felt in vignette to the south of the site where Walton St will connect via a pedestrian route to Woodstock Rd. Here, McLaughlin’s recently completed Somerville College residences are a slither of red brick and oak skirting the whole southern edge of the ROQ. A northern gateway for the college to the future site, its rooms and stair towers are part of a narrative of the lane, gateways and small squares, its details and spaces experienced only on a passage along it. It’s brick but contextual, the architect talking of ‘the seam of brick running east/west along Oxford’s northern suburbs’. McLaughlin is evoking not the grandeur but the ‘downtime’ spaces of the city, the ‘leftovers’  between colleges that form as much the grain of the city as the institutions themselves – streets like Queens Lane and Longwall, their sheer faces of blank stone a brute epidermis to the flesh of the colleges beyond. Such spaces embody what McLaughlin calls ‘Pevsner’s subtle ideas of episodic townscape’. If the detail of that lane is anything to go by, there’s hope the Observatory site, nodding to complexity and incidence, may become part of Oxford’s bigger picture. 

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