The architect’s modern addition for the 400-year-old Oxford college concludes a decade-long project of restoration and renewal
‘Meet the ancestors!’ says Sandy Wright, holding out a lump of rock. It’s a stone sample, rich in fossils, of the type selected for the replacement cloister columns of the grade I listed Canterbury Quad at St John’s College Oxford. The originals, getting on for 400 years old, were cracking and failing. The new ones, stylistically exact copies of the Tuscan order originals, are smoothly finished but the sample reveals the internal composition of the stone, a mass of ancient shellfish – the ancestors – rather resembling a plate of paella.
Sandy has tales to tell about the repair and restoration of the part gothic, part classical quad with its two original libraries. This is the conclusion of what has been a decade-long programme of works, both newbuild and conservation, by Wright & Wright for the college. One tale: his stone specialists recommended that each new column sit on a very thin disc of lead as a damp-proof course. This was declared a novelty by a historic buildings advisor on the team – until a colleague happened to visit St Paul’s Cathedral and clocked that Christopher Wren had done exactly that. So the lead discs went in, and the sharp-eyed can just make out their edges where the column shafts meet the pedestals. There are 16 freestanding columns of this type and 12 engaged half-columns. Plus others in the local honey-coloured stone restored as part of the elaborate overall architecture, for which no named architect has ever been identified.
Then there was the matter of restoring the interior of Archbishop Laud’s original Old Library in what is now the southern range. It was forbidden to attach anything to the venerable wooden bookcases – until it transpired that some of the precious wood trim at high level was cheap stuff from a refurb job in the 1960s or 70s. Delicate LED light fittings were duly attached to that. The seemingly old wide-but-random oak floorboards here turn out to be part of Wright’s latest restoration, complete with hand-forged ‘rosehead’ nails. They replaced more unsuitable mid 20th century flooring, and an internal staircase gouged out of the old library at the same period was removed and the floor reinstated. Heating is upgraded (its pipes no longer cook the bookcases) and there is subtle secondary glazing to the restored leaded windows.
Change at St John’s has been frequent if not constant over the centuries. The fact that it has a Cistercian wine cellar tells you plenty about the monastic origins of the quadrangular college as a building type. The fact that Canterbury Quad, built by Laud in 1631-6, incorporates very prominent Hubert le Suer bronze statues of King Charles I and his Queen Henrietta in elaborate niches indicates the Royalist sympathies of Laud and the City of Oxford at the time.
Both king and queen attended the incredibly lavish banquet and entertainment – masquerminded, so to speak, by Inigo Jones, and including walking pies representing both Anglican bishops and the Pope with his cardinals – that Laud threw to mark the completion of the works. Much good it did them, as both Archbishop and King were to have their heads detached in the subsequent English Civil Wars. And finally, the fact that the quad and Laud’s Old Library within it have been comprehensively restored in such a way that you’re hard put to it to see where the work has been done – that tells you what today’s architects and crafts specialists can do.
Laud later extended his library at right angles to the first, to run at first floor level along the east wing. A key part of Wright & Wright’s work included adding a further extension in the form of an all-new 2019 library building running north from the north-east corner of the quad. It seems nobody had thought to build there previously. It is neatly inserted into the grain of the college gardens, set just behind a 1613 wall. The college president was prepared to sacrifice some of her private garden but overlooking was not allowed, hence the indirect daylighting on that side behind a stone wall enlivened by Susanna Heron’s carving. Clare Wright also discovered the ‘lost’ Otranto Passage running at ground level along the back of the east wing, used only for storage. This now provides a key route from quad to new library.
It's a complicated thing to describe, these three phases of work, but totally logical in execution. In summary, two old libraries (the older by appointment for rare books, the less old for open study) are restored and link through to the new library building, while the crumbling Canterbury Quad is restored. That’s it, but in this ultra-sensitive historic context it’s like a sequence of keyhole surgery operations.
Although it is one of Oxford’s more self-effacing colleges, St John’s is also the wealthiest and, for all its historic beginnings, was the first to wholeheartedly embrace modernism. That started with the ‘Beehive’ cluster of hexagonal student rooms, 1958-60 by Michael Powers of the Architects Co-Partnership. Later came successive developments to the north by Philip Dowson’s Arup Associates and Richard MacCormac’s practice. Sandy Wright was a partner of MacCormac’s until 1994 when he and Clare Wright set up their own firm on the back of a competition win at the Royal College of Art for the first of their many subsequent libraries.
One of these took them to Lambeth Palace for the present Archbishop of Canterbury’s new library building. While they were doing that, they were also getting to grips with the work of his 28-times predecessor in Oxford. The St John’s brief, however, was about more than library expansion and conservation work. It was as much to do with re-balancing the college’s centre of gravity. The two main linked original quads sit towards the southern end of the site: later phases marched north and north-eastwards because that was where building was possible. In consequence the original entrance and heart of the college had started to feel somewhat off-pitch. This is what caused the 2019 new library building to be shoe-horned right into the centre of the college plan rather than being banished to the edges somewhere. This is bold, as well as very careful, work.
At its far end you can exit the new building down steps, emerging in front of the Dowson buildings. It’s a span of four centuries from one end to the other, but it is all built to last. While the old buildings are lightly thermally upgraded, the new one makes intelligent use of sustainable techniques including natural ventilation, rooftop photovoltaics and heating via ground-source heatpumps, the ground in question being deep beneath the large college gardens. This isn’t just a matter of ‘meet the ancestors’. It’s also to do with stewarding the place for future generations.
IN NUMBERS (phase 2, new library building)
Contract cost: confidential
GIFA: 1,780 m2
Predicted on-site renewable energy generation: 37,000 kWh/year
Actual annual electricity usage: 35,600 kWh/year
Embodied carbon: 621 Kg CO2 eq/m2
Net carbon emissions 13.96 kg CO2/m2/yr
Heat loss form factor: 1.35
Permeability 3.95 m3/hr/m2 at 50Pa
Designed to 1,500 year flood risk level
No. libraries 3 (16th, 17th and 21st centuries)
Client St. John’s College, Oxford
Principal designer Wright & Wright Architects
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E engineer Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Peter Gittens Associates
Main contractor Beard Construction
CDM co-ordinator Goddard Consulting
Fire and access consultant Menzies Partners
Approved building inspector Oxford Building Control
Stone conservation Szerelmey
Joinery specialists Owlsworth IJP; NBJ
Decorative arts conservator Cliveden Conservation
The top image of fossiliferous stone was taken by Hugh Pearman