Oxford University has developed a taste for big-name architectural projects – most recently the controversial Blavatnik school of government, built by Herzog & de Meuron. Is the trend anything more than a need to attract billionaire sponsors?
A century passed – the 20th – in which the University of Oxford did not acquire an interior as magnificent as this. A cylinder of void rises seven storeys, ringed with galleries, congruent until they diminish and become eccentric at the top two levels. Other circles spin off, secondary stairs and light fittings, as if this were a habitable astrolabe, the model of a previously unknown solar system. The main material is concrete, but warmed by the smell of oak, with its notes of wine cellars and forests. The form echoes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York; the ambition compares to the large Victorian chapel of Keble College, where some of the guano fortune of the donor William Gibbs was transmuted into polychromatic piety.
The inner wonder is combined with an impervious exterior. The internal form translates into a glass drum surmounted by a smaller one, with the smooth geometry interrupted at one point by a rectangular layer. The entrance is assertively symmetrical. The glass cladding offers opacity, although the architects say that it will be more transparent when it is complete. There is a ground-level cafe that for now will open only inwards, denying the simple move of providing pavement tables, and offering more inscrutable glazing to the passer-by. Security barriers will stop the casual visitor getting deep into the building. The circular shapes seem to whip up a wind on the paved plinth.
The form, say its architects, Herzog and de Meuron, is inspired by the university’s freestanding monuments such as the baroque Radcliffe Camera, but the material is deliberately not of its context, nothing like the neoclassical stone ex-chapel to one side, or the Oxford University Press building, also stone and classical, opposite, or the modest houses of the surrounding streets. The material is high-class curtain walling, a variant of a type seen everywhere. As often in their work, the architects try to introduce some sublimity or suggestive evanescence to the surface through its reflections of sky and clouds, but the stronger reading is of something both confident in itself and from another world. […]