Blavatnik School of Government
The Blavatnik School forms the latest fragment in a patchwork of architectural influences along Jericho’s Walton Street in Oxford.
Af Alice Haugh
The building’s bold silhouette stands proudly between the cool brutalism of Somerville College’s 1967 Wolfson Building and the dilapidated Ionic portico of Freud’s next door (formerly a Greek Revival church dating from 1836, the owner of which fiercely opposed the new building).
Oxford is an almost sacred territory for world-class education in literally any of its many famous colleges. The sheer level of historicism embedded in this city’s fabric and composition is incredible, almost shocking.
— Jacques Herzog, founding partner, Herzog & de Meuron
The School marks the southwest corner of the future Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, a campus for humanities research planned on the 10-acre site of a former hospital. Herzog & de Meuron’s edifice to governance and public policy is one of the masterplan’s first completed buildings, having opened in November 2015. The structure’s circular form has been interpreted as muted deference to Oxford’s historic tradition of iconic rotunda buildings like the Sheldonian Theatre and the Bodleian Library. Ascan Mergenthaler, Senior Partner at Herzog & de Meuron, asserts that ‘the circular form is also an urban decision. The building is located at a corner of the masterplan that enables it to act like a gateway of pivot.’
The Blavatnik creates an unapologetically contemporary addition to the streetscape, holding its own against the neoclassical stone portico of Oxford University Press across the road. The school’s first-floor ‘window to the world’ frames this relationship with a dose of drama – at 10.5m x 3.2m, it is the largest double-glazed single pane of glass in Europe. The entranceway is marked by rich oak doors, turned bronze handles and imperial gilded lettering above the doorway. This stately expression of an institutional threshold continues the air of academic exclusivity which pervades Oxford. As is the norm in modern university buildings, public access into the Blavatnik School is sadly forbidden, blocked by a line of turnstiles just inside those majestic oak doors.
Circles and spirals distinguish the form of the building both inside and out. The school’s functions are housed in six offset, stacked volumes, five of which are circular in plan. At the base, sunken below street level, are two lecture theatres, supplemented by a suite of flexible seminar rooms for teaching. As one moves up the building, a range of academic offices, research and study spaces enclose the cylindrical atrium – a classical plan that echoes those of university quads throughout the city. This kinetically charged space recalls the spiraling ramps of New York’s Guggenheim, but with a pleasing irregularity. Yet one traditional marker of scholarly life is missing from the Blavatnik School: a library. Its interior suffers from a perplexing lack of books. Apparently an app has been developed to deliver reading material to students, but this, opposite the largest university press in the world, seems a little unsatisfying.
The building’s materiality is surprisingly traditional in appearance, though stunningly detailed. An insulating double-layered glass facade is supported by precast concrete masonry units that echo the Bath and Headington limestone visible throughout Oxford’s built fabric. Mergenthaler explains that ‘the molded frames in which the [glass] panels sit are an abstract version of the typical stone architraves found on many historic buildings around Oxford.’ But this combination feels unusually tame for an office as daring as Herzog & de Meuron, and one imagines the architects might have intended a more avant-garde material be used to express the structure, before local planners and adjacent property owners demanded contextual adherence. The building’s glass provides a slightly disconcerting experience, offering clear views out to the fortunate few within, but a curiously reflective, opaque surface to outsiders looking in. In this respect, the new building is of a piece with the rest of Oxford, a city where the boundaries between public and private space are often unclear. Are those quads and cloisters actually open to the public – or do they offer mere glimpses into other worlds of scholarly privilege?