Wright & Wright’s treatment of Oxford’s venerable St John’s College depends on reverence, discretion and quality

A few good materials used well - Wright and Wright’s new staircase at the north end of the library range.
A few good materials used well - Wright and Wright’s new staircase at the north end of the library range. · Credit: Dennis Gilbert

St John’s College is ranked as Oxford’s wealthiest. It is also very old, dating from 1555 in its present form but with some buildings going back to the former Cistercian College of St Bernard, which started building in 1437. It’s a youthful upstart, however, compared with some of the earliest colleges in the city – St Edmund Hall, Balliol, Merton. And according to architect Clare Wright, they’re a progressive bunch at St John’s. They approve of contemporary architecture, and insist on zero-carbon buildings. In return, Wright & Wright has a famously good eye for such accretive historic complexes. The upshot is that the firm has just completed a first phase of refurbishment there, is about to start a Phase 2 newbuild, and will conclude with a third phase refurbishing the libraries.

  • The axial view through Canterbury Quad: the Laudian Library range. New entrance to library on left at end.
    The axial view through Canterbury Quad: the Laudian Library range. New entrance to library on left at end. · Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Beautiful brass insert to oak handrail.
    Beautiful brass insert to oak handrail. · Credit: Dennis Gilbert

Clare Wright likes to quote architectural historian Howard Colvin, who was based at St John’s: ‘In a university built round quadrangles it stands out as one of the most ambitious of its kind and as the first in which the architecture is predominantly classical.’

It is also astonishingly peaceful, given that this is right in the centre of Oxford. The peace was not permanently disturbed when in the 1970s the college built its range of new student rooms to the north, the Thomas White Building, in the vertebral concrete manner by Arup Associates; nor in the 1990s by the more historically allusive Garden Quad by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. Both have weathered very well, settling into the college parkland known as The Groves. 

This first phase of Wright & Wright’s work is rich and subtle, and demonstrates that good architecture is as much about problem-solving as it is about making any kind of statement. The library interiors had been much altered in the 19th and 20th centuries – Colvin himself, as librarian, had inserted a new staircase in the daylight-drenched 90º ‘knuckle’ space in one corner of the 17th century Canterbury Quad between the Old Library and later Laudian Library. The new plan reinstates the spirit of the original geometric sequence, finding a new way into the Laudian library via an existing door into a half-forgotten slice of left-over ground-floor space known as the ‘Otranto Passage’. This now slopes gently up to a new staircase at the (previously altered) end, which Wright & Wright expresses as a piece of freestanding furniture in oak, brass, steel and Clipsham stone. 

New entrance to library runs along rediscovered ‘Otranto Passage’
New entrance to library runs along rediscovered ‘Otranto Passage’ · Credit: Dennis Gilbert

From this high space, which aside from the rich materials has something of a scullery feel, a connection will be made at first-floor level to a new study centre tucked into a convenient curved set-back to the high 17th century garden wall outside. That, now on site, will also make a link between the original college buildings and the 20th and 21st century additions to the north, and contain a lift accessing old and new buildings alike. Then Wright & Wright will turn its attention to a judicious restoration of the original libraries. 

St John’s thinks for the long term. The first phase may not be lavish, but is made to last, with excellent durable materials. Wright & Wright – which is now also more radically reworking and extending the library at Magdalen – here gives a masterclass in the art of invisible mending.


 

Credits

Client St John’s College, Oxford
Architect Wright & Wright
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Services engineer Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Peter W Gittin & Associates
Project manager Sweett Group
Contractor Beard Construction Group