Exeter College; St Hilda’s College, Oxford
From its big, sheltering roof to its little desk windows, Alison Brooks’s new quad for Exeter College is a tour de force that puts people first, while a playful addition to St Hilda’s makes the most of its riverfront setting
Just after you enter the Cohen Quad, a building designed by Alison Brooks Architects for Exeter College, Oxford, a perspective of wooden arches recedes before you. They are planar and skinny, like a succession of stage flats, and allow sunlight to filter from the left. The arches pause, then start again in the distance, now made of concrete, lit from the right and aligned at a slightly different angle. The effect is inviting and mysterious, with an enigmatic scale that’s a bit Alice in Wonderland. It’s an elegant rabbit hole.
The arches’ rhythm frames irregularities that you might not immediately notice. The floor slopes down at first, following the fall of the land in this particular location. There’s a subtle dilation in the wooden enfilade – the arches get higher and wider in the middle of the sequence – and a corresponding contraction in the concrete ones. They shrink in the middle of their run. The architecture is playful, free and enjoyable. Pleasure is taken in building materials and volume and light, and in the ways of putting them together.
The purpose of the project is to expand the 700-year-old college, whose historic site in the centre of the city has no room for expansion. The newer building, half a mile away, has accommodation for 90 undergraduate and postgraduate students, an auditorium, seminar rooms and a cafe, as well as a basement archive for the college’s collections of manuscripts and old books. Cohen Quad is a self-sufficient satellite – students can live, eat, socialise and study here – but also close enough to the ancient mothership for them to go easily from one to the other.
It’s on a site formerly occupied by Ruskin College, which has relocated elsewhere, whose only-fairly-good 1913 facade and part of its flanking walls have been retained. If this is a manoeuvre beloved of cynical developers – keep the historic skin and gut the rest – here it is justified by the result, to free up space for a generous and open building, which manages to get a lot out of a limited amount of volume. It achieves an abundance of internal personalities: places that are expansive or intimate, introverted or outward looking, high, low, bright, shadowy, materials that are natural or machine-made, sculpted, hollowed-out, assembled, jointed, welded. Brooks, who is an architect best known for award-winning housing schemes in Cambridge, Harlow and the London borough of Brent, says that the idea is to “draw students out of their rooms”, to “give them choices where to work” and to make “every space a different kind of gathering space”.
What you notice most on the outside is a big, scaly roof, clad in diamond-patterned stainless steel, rounded off at its angles, which wraps down over the walls. It is meant to make the building feel like a big house, enveloping and sheltering, riffing on the eventful skylines of Oxford’s collegiate buildings, while also referring to the arts and crafts style of decoration that was inspired by William Morris, who studied at the college. The roof is a bit dragony too, which might have pleased another Exeter alumnus, JRR Tolkien.
It’s a rare thing to see architecture at once so imaginative and thought through
Otherwise, the exterior is clad in pale, respectful stone of a kind of which the city has plenty. Two U-shaped courts are formed, each open on one side, conceived as less inward-looking versions of the traditional Oxford quadrangle. One faces towards the gardens of neighbouring Worcester College, the other towards a domestic-scaled street that runs along one side of the Cohen Quad’s site.
The wooden arcade runs down one side of one of these courts, the concrete along the other. Together they form a central spine off which you can reach the main functions of the building. In the centre, in the pause between the two arcades, is a “learning commons”, an open, multilevel area where students can and do sit down with their laptops or play with their phones or chat or gaze out the windows or do whatever helps their intellectual cogs to turn.
The architecture gets most boisterous in the auditorium, a place of pushing and pulling and lightness and oomph. It has a vault in two halves, with a low bulbous section hanging in defiance of gravity from a soaring convex part, both of them formed in a freeform timber gothic of wooden struts and ribs. The students’ rooms are calm, made with enduring materials including cherry wood and concrete, with an additional little window for casting daylight on to a built-in desk. Fellows’ rooms on the top floor have high, curved ceilings that follow the shape of the dragon roof.
The design helps you feel where you are, whether under the roof or at ground level or in a place hollowed out of the earth, and keeps giving you views out to the modest terraces and grand institutions around. It also places you in time, with its references to the quads and cloisters and stone walls of old Oxford within what is plainly a contemporary building.
The Cohen Quad is not all perfect: something terrible has happened to the wall with the neighbouring garden, which looks like a cheap wooden fence, and some of the encounters of its multiple forms and materials work better than others. It has also had a bumpy ride getting here: it was mostly complete four years ago, but some problems with construction followed by the pandemic mean that it can only now be fully appreciated. But it’s a rare thing to see architecture at once so imaginative and thought through, where ideas as to how people might live and work together shape everything from the big roof to a little desktop window.
The Anniversary Building for another Oxford college, St Hilda’s, also plays with tradition. Here, the idea was to make the most of an asset – the college’s long and verdant frontage on to the River Cherwell – while remedying a weakness, which is to unify what was a straggle of existing buildings. So the architects Jay Gort and Fiona Scott, who, like Brooks, have some well-considered housing projects to their name, have designed a long, cranked block that echoes the river’s meander and added an entrance tower with a crown-like top. They have created a pavilion for events and lectures on the water’s edge, whose glazed walls allow you to enjoy the views. A newly re-planted landscape runs between the buildings.
Like the Cohen Quad, the Anniversary Building plays with history and building materials, while providing such things as student rooms, common rooms and spaces for teaching and functions. The notion here is that the old form of the quadrangle has been unfolded, such that you get a riverside garden rather than the traditional enclosure, while still making a place that is sheltered and reflective. The plain brickwork of the long block gets scalloped and frilly at the top, such that it nicely catches light and shadow. From time to time the metalwork breaks out into patterns of oak leaves. It’s not quite the tour de force that is the Cohen Quad – the interiors are a more familiar affair of white-painted plasterboard – but it is still a thoughtful and civilised piece of design.
All of which leaves me wishing there was more work like this outside the privileged enclaves of Oxford. It certainly helps that a venerable institution such as Exeter College can attract funding from someone such as the venture capitalist and philanthropist Ronald Cohen, but it’s not all about money. Alison Brooks argues that, at a construction cost of £30m for about 6,000 square metres of accommodation, the building that she designed is not outrageously expensive. More important, she says, is the lack of a corporate mentality that believes that places of education should be built like office blocks.
Commissioning in Oxford probably has much to do with self-confidence and a sense of keeping up with the past. But there is no fundamental reason why the qualities of buildings such as the Cohen Quad and the Anniversary Building can’t be more widely available. Meanwhile, they should be enjoyed for the achievements they are.