Tim Abrahams

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Bricks and Mortar Boards

The Economist April 2017

TOURISTS in Oxford train their camera lenses on its centuries-old buildings. But the university is now perhaps Britain’s greatest client for contemporary architecture. Last year the six-strong shortlist for the Stirling Prize, the country’s main architectural award, featured two Oxford buildings: WilkinsonEyre’s thoughtful renovation of the New Bodleian Library, and the Blavatnik School of Government, a glitzy stack of jewellery boxes by Herzog and de Meuron. Last month the Royal Institute of British Architects commended two more university buildings: Wright and Wright’s innovative semi-submerged library extension for Magdalen College, and a pair of smart contemporary structures at Lincoln College by Stanton Williams. The former is tipped for this year’s Stirling shortlist.

With the memory of the Florey foul-up fading, Oxford is again commissioning imaginative work.
There is an irony to that. In 1971 the Queen’s College unveiled its Florey building, a terracotta-clad half-bowl of student flats. Its architect was James Stirling, who later gave his name to the prize. The building’s A-frame structure has often been imitated, but the building leaked and Stirling quarrelled with the dons, who wrote to colleagues at other colleges urging them not to employ him. Stirling was driven to test himself abroad, and for three decades little contemporary architecture of much quality was risked by the university.

With the memory of the Florey foul-up fading, Oxford is again commissioning imaginative work. Not only that: like other universities, it is going beyond exotic libraries and dormitories with plans for housing and business space.Homes in Oxford are among the least affordable in Britain. The housing pinch is keenly felt by postdoctoral researchers, 4,500 of whom work in Oxford on short-term contracts with unspectacular pay. The university realised that these academic serfs, who form the backbone of its intellectual project, were spending huge amounts of their income on rent and that if it wanted to remain competitive it would have to find them more places to live.

Though the university owns stonking amounts of land, co-ordinating development is hard because of the power wielded by the colleges in its loose federation. “It’s borderline anarchy, but then that is one of the glories of the place,” says William James, a professor of virology who doubles as the university’s head of planning.
St John’s, the richest of the colleges with an endowment of nearly £500m ($620m), is about to submit a proposal for a development called Oxford North.

Jonathan Kendall of Fletcher Priest, the practice behind the plan for 500 homes and 100,000 square metres of research facilities, says it has been designed with competition from foreign universities in mind. In a triangle of farmland between main roads, it is a cross between an American-style research park (showy low-rise buildings in a verdant landscape) and a British garden-city, in which work and home space are close together. The building type owes as much to “Cambridge, Massachusetts as it does to Cambridge,” says Mr Kendall.

A separate proposal by the central university authority would create a canalside creative quarter on the site of an industrial estate at Osney Mead, to the west of the city, providing 600 homes for students and staff. Like Oxford North, it would include work-space for academics and startups. Building houses and offices for spin-off firms is something other universities are trying, too. This summer Cambridge will complete the first phase of a 3,000-home development. Such plans represent not just a new architectural approach but a commercial one, too.