New student accommodation Somerville College Oxford

Rosamund Diamond

The student accommodation designed by Niall Mclaughlin Architects for Somerville College has been made at a time of significant development for Oxford University. On a narrow site on Somerville's edge and bounding one of the University's largest projects, it has been designed to be read in the contexts of individual college development, and the affect on the city of the University's growth. Somerville's new building is differentiated from recent Oxford College additions, as a project which simultaneously consolidates the collegiate form and seeks to integrate university development into the city's existing morphology. In this case by constituting a public route on its north boundary, where it had not previously existed. Simultaneously, its layered timber and brick fabrication is engaged in the process of reworking a College building typology which had produced a formal institutional architecture of buildings fronting quadrangles, with the subordination of individual expression. McLaughlin's project reinvestigates the complexities of the formal and private architectural representation of the urban institution using less aggrandised materials. Brick is associated in Oxford with the Arts and Crafts movement and the more laissez-faire development of colleges such as Somerville, or a new college developed in the nineteenth century, notably Waterhouse's Keble. Timber, in Oxford's urban context is associated with the trabeated construction of the vernacular, not (in the modern era) as a material of grand expression. The construction system used in the new accommodation departs from the load bearing, monolithic stone faced construction of earlier college buildings, or the use of expressive structure associated with several of the mid-twentieth century college additions. Instead, prominent timber components of the main elevation, such as the stair towers and the student room bays, are extruded from the primary structural component, the precast concrete spine, as an assemblage of (largely prefabricated) representational parts.

Somerville (a women's college founded in 1879) is on Oxford's north edge, away from the dense city centre pattern of college quadrangles, where the university district is more diffuse and later Colleges were absorbed into the adjacent residential districts. It is not so morphologically rigid, with an atypical form derived from its foundation in a large house, from which it was expanded with a collection of buildings around less structured spaces, the greatest of which is a large garden. The new accommodation building is located between the diffuse College and the upscaled new University area to its north, previously occupied by Oxford's hospital, (the Radcliffe Infirmary), on a site generated by the demolition of buildings on Somerville's boundary. This exposed the 100 meter long three and four storey high blank rear wall of Somerville's library. The two long narrow buildings of McLaughlin's design, compelled to face outwards, are the width of a corridor and a student room.
As a key component denoting their urban engagement, the new blocks, clamped to the library and cranking parallel to the existing College range, have configured a new narrow lane running west from one of the city's main arteries into the suburb of Jericho. Sited between the diffuse College and the University district, the buildings' character is of a facade generated to respond to the back lane, with the functional expression of the accommodation articulating the new street. The stepped line of the buildings, their facades composed on the oblique as they will almost always be viewed, shape the meandering character of the new route, modelled on central Oxford's Queen's Lane. The precast concrete spine, largely concealed on the main facade, behind brick or timber facings, structures the buildings' linear circulation, and anchors the rooms between the stair towers. Spatial elements, the timber stair towers at each end, raised above the block lines, and the timber box bays of the student rooms, are extruded from the linear structural form,. Somerville's residential buildings subdivide the blocks and privelege the role of the timber elements, to dispel any unitary domination of the construction system.

The elements also expound the delightful characteristic of narrative routes, where features are revealed as part of the walker's experience. Recalling Nikalaus Pevsner's characterisation of the existing city, the design responds to Oxford's existing morphology of episodic back streets generated between the college enclaves. The route is developed as a sequence of spaces, using the extruded parts of the facade, the towers and the bay windows, the lowest of which constitute the lane in place of front entrance doors. Referring to Camillo Sitte's picturesque design principles, the new articulated timber parts, and the existing buildings, such as the gable end of an old school, and the University Press's Arch of Constantine to the west, are drawn into view from the garden, and the student rooms. As part of the new urban route, the accommodation is broken to introduce a new gateway entrance to the College, bounded on each side by the stair towers at the end of each block. Aligned to one of the main boulevards of Rafael Vinoly Architects' Beaux-Arts derived masterplan for the University's extension, the entrance lengthens a view from the College garden to the Radcliffe Observatory on the north east.

Whilst the new accommodation consolidates Somerville' s edge, its composition and its material strategy contradict several of Oxford's urban characteristics derived from the colleges: its formal main street fronts, and the typical college introversion normally manifested in their inward orientated buildings and back lanes. The blocks' layered tectonic construction system, disrupt the typical homogeneity of the college enclaves, and the monolithic typology of the faculty buildings on the opposite side of the lane, such as the new Mathematical Institute (Rafael Vinoly Architects) and the School of Government (Herzog de Meuron). The individual rooms expressed as hardwood boxes are suspended in brick faced portals subdividing the blocks. They resist the hierarchies of a conventional load bearing structure, or the frame and infill of mid twentieth century student accommodation, manifested in Arup Associates' earlier buildings for Somerville (1965 /1968), with their concrete frames or columns and beams supporting student rooms, wherein the expressive overall volumes describe a new college form. Pragmatically, the projecting boxes admit angled light and broader views to improve their north orientation. They recall the bay windows used in Oxford's narrower streets alluding to a typological domesticity, whilst describing the specific modern condition of the student segregated and yet part of an urban community. The meticulously crafted boxes float, not grounded on a solid base. They are oak faced externally and internally, with a greater requisite external elaboration, inverting the timber linings of the older, more priveleged college rooms, to contradict the layered separation of the domestic interior behind civic structure in the contemporary city. As a means to privacy, they have inset windows with deep external reveals, and wooden shutters, recalling the carrels in Kahn's Phillips Exeter Library with their independent control of light. The elevated stair towers, propped between slim brick flank walls, are timber volumes formed from slim oak fins and beams forming free supporting lantern towers with a 360º view. The material of the 500mm deep fins with their concomitant modelling in some way resemble stone mullions, formerly used as an element of the embellished load bearing university buildings.

The accommodation buildings resist a more typical inscrutable monolithy, with a layered tectonic system, in which the brick and timber components adopt fragmentary representational roles as parts of the college and city. The scheme proposes timber simultaneously as an appropriate institutional material and for its urban domesticity. Using atypical construction, the buildings assemble the archaic urban elements of the tower, block, gateway and bay windowed room, as recognizabe forms across Oxford, contextualising a response to the urban facade through a spatial use of timber. Architectural fragments form the street as a terrace rather than an independent building, The wall which would have typically bounded the university back street is replaced and activated by the timber bays. In this case building with timber seems to have several intentions in legitimising it as an appropriate material for a public edifice of the city. Its use as part of a layered material in conjuction with the brick facings, makes the relationship between the construction and form ambiguous. McLaughlin's project is not so abstract that it preoccupies itself with form, yet it isolates independent functional characteristics of the contemporary city. In this way, the buildings maintain the symbolic grammar of place, assembling parts which are familiar to Oxford.

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