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Good Buildings Should Be Universal: Oxford's New Quads

A perspective of wooden arches recedes before you as you approach the Cohen Quad, a structure constructed by Alison Brooks Architects for Exeter College, Oxford. They're thin and planar, like a series of stage flats, and they let light in from the left.

The arches halt, then resume in the distance, now formed of concrete and lighted from the right at a slightly different angle. With an intriguing size that's a little Alice in Wonderland, the effect is appealing and fascinating. It's a sophisticated rabbit hole.

The rhythm of the arches frames flaws that you may not notice right away. Following the collapse of the ground in this specific place, the floor slopes down at first. The wooden enfilade has a modest dilatation – the arches go taller and broader in the midst of the series – while the concrete ones have a comparable contraction.

In the midst of their run, they begin to shrink. The architecture is lighthearted, free-spirited, and entertaining. Pleasure is taken in the materials, volume, and light used in construction, as well as the methods used to bring them together.

The goal of the project is to enlarge the 700-year-old institution, which currently has little capacity for development due to its historic location in the heart of the city. A half-mile distant, a modern structure houses 90 undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as an auditorium, seminar rooms, and a café, as well as a basement archive for the college's manuscript and old book collections.

Cohen Quad is a self-contained satellite – students may live, dine, socialize, and study here – but it is also near enough to the historic mothership that students can easily travel between the two.

It's on the site of Ruskin College, which has since moved, but its only-fairly-good 1913 front and some surrounding walls have been preserved. If keeping the historic skin and gutting the remainder is a cynical developer's favorite maneuver, it is justified here by the effect, which is to free up space for a large and open building that gets a lot out of a little amount of volume.

It accomplishes a variety of interior personalities: vast or intimate spaces, introverted or outward facing spaces, lofty, low, brilliant, gloomy spaces, natural or machine-made materials, sculpted, hollowed-out spaces, assembled, jointed, welded spaces. The objective 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," according to Brooks, an architect best known for award-winning housing plans in Cambridge, Harlow, and the London district of Brent.

On the exterior, the most noticeable feature is a large, scaly roof wrapped around the walls and coated in diamond-patterned stainless steel with rounded corners. It riffs on the dramatic skylines of Oxford's academic buildings while also referencing to the arts and crafts style of decorating that was influenced by William Morris, who studied at the college, to make the building seem like a huge home, engulfing and sheltering. Another Exeter graduate, JRR Tolkien, could have enjoyed the roof's dragon-like appearance.

The outside, on the other hand, is clothed in a pale, respectable stone, of which the city has abundance. Two U-shaped courts, each open on one side, are created as less inward-looking alternatives to the conventional Oxford quadrangle. One overlooks Worcester College's gardens, while the other confronts a residential-scaled roadway that runs down one side of the Cohen Quad's location.

One of these courts has a wooden arcade on one side and a concrete court on the other. They create a central spine from which you may access the building's major functions. A "learning commons" sits in the middle, between the two arcades, an open, multilevel space where students may and do sit with their computers, play with their phones, converse, stare out the windows, or do whatever it takes to keep their cerebral gears turning.

The theater, a space of pushing and pulling, lightness and oomph, is where the architecture becomes the most raucous. It features a two-part vault, with a low bulbous component dangling defiantly from a soaring convex section, both made of freeform timber gothic of wooden struts and ribs.

The students' rooms are serene, with durable materials such as cherry wood and concrete, as well as a small window that casts light on a built-in desk. On the top level, fellows' rooms feature high, curving ceilings that mimic the curvature of the dragon roof.

The design gives you a sense of where you are, whether you're under the roof, on the ground, or in a hole in the ground, and it continues offering you vistas out to the nearby humble terraces and great institutions. With allusions to the quads, cloisters, and stone walls of ancient Oxford inside what is clearly a modern structure, it also transports you back in time.

The Cohen Quad isn't perfect: something awful occurred to the wall with the next garden, which now seems to be a cheap wooden fence, and some of the interactions between its many shapes and materials work better than others. It, too, has had a difficult road to get here: it was essentially finished four years ago, but construction issues and the pandemic have meant that it can only now be properly appreciated.

But it's unusual to see architecture that is both inventive and well-thought-out, with ideas for how people may live and work together shaping everything from the enormous ceiling to a little desktop window.

Another Oxford college, St Hilda's, has an Anniversary Building that likewise toys with tradition. The goal was to maximize a strength – the college's long and lush frontage on the River Cherwell – while also addressing a weakness – the need to unite a jumble of existing structures.

So architects Jay Gort and Fiona Scott, who, like Brooks, have a long, cranked block that mirrors the river's meander and adds an entry tower with a crown-like top, created a long, cranked block that echoes the river's meander and adds an entrance tower with a crown-like top. They've built a pavilion on the water's edge for events and talks, with transparent walls that enable you to take in the scenery.

Between the buildings, a recently replanted landscape flows.

The Anniversary Construction, like the Cohen Quad, plays with history and building materials while offering student quarters, common areas, and teaching and event spaces. The idea is that the original quadrangle shape has been unfurled, resulting in a riverfront garden rather than the usual enclosure, while still creating a protected and meditative space.

The tall block's simple brickwork becomes scalloped and frilly towards the top, catching light and shadow well. The metalwork sometimes breaks out into oak leaf designs. The interiors are a more traditional affair of white-painted plasterboard, so it's not quite the tour de force that is the Cohen Quad, but it's still a sensible and polite piece of architecture.

All of this makes me wish there was more jobs like this available outside of Oxford's wealthy areas. It obviously helps that a renowned school like Exeter College can draw investment from people like Ronald Cohen, a venture investor and philanthropist, but it's not just about money.

Alison Brooks claims that the building she designed, with a construction cost of £30 million for around 6,000 square meters of space, is not exorbitantly priced. More importantly, she claims, there is an absence of a corporate mindset that thinks schools should be designed like office buildings.

It's likely that commissioning in Oxford has a lot to do with self-assurance and a desire to stay in touch with the past. However, there is no reason why structures like the Cohen Quad and the Anniversary Building can't be made more freely accessible. Meanwhile, they should be appreciated for their accomplishments.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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