Jjust after entering the Quad Cohen, a building designed by Alison Brooks Architects for Exeter College, Oxford, a perspective of wooden arches recedes in front of you. They are flat and thin, like a succession of stage sets, and allow sunlight to filter through from the left. The arches stop, then start again in the distance, now concrete, lit from the right and aligned at a slightly different angle. The effect is inviting and mysterious, with an enigmatic scale that is a bit Alice in Wonderland. It is an elegant rabbit hole.
The rhythm of the arches frames irregularities that you might not immediately notice. The ground is initially on a downward slope, following the fall of the ground at this particular place. There is a subtle expansion in the wooden row – the arches get taller 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 fun, free and pleasant. We take pleasure in the building materials, in the volume and in the light, and in the ways of putting them together.
The aim of the project is to expand the 700-year-old college, whose historic site in the city center has no room for expansion. The most recent building, 800 meters away, houses 90 undergraduate and postgraduate students, an auditorium, seminar rooms and a café, as well as an archival basement for the manuscript and book collections. college alumni. Cohen Quad is a self-sufficient satellite – students can live, eat, socialize, and study here – but also close enough to the old mothership that they can easily switch between them.
It is on a site formerly occupied by Ruskin College, which moved elsewhere, of which the only fairly good facade from 1913 and part of its accompanying walls have been preserved. If this is a maneuver dear to cynical developers – to keep the historical skin and empty the rest – it is justified here by the result, to free up space for a generous and open building, which manages to pull the plug. best use of a limited volume. She achieves an abundance of internal personalities: expansive or intimate places, introverted or outward-looking, high, low, luminous, shaded, natural or mechanized materials, sculpted, hollowed out, assembled, joined, welded. Brooks, who is an architect best known for his award-winning housing programs in Cambridge, Harlow and the London Borough of Brent, explains that the idea is to “get students out of their rooms,” to “give them the choice of where work ”and make“ each space a different gathering space ”.
What you notice most on the outside is a large, scaly roof, clad in diamond-patterned stainless steel, rounded at its corners, which rolls up on the walls. It is intended to make the building feel like a large, enveloping and sheltering house, taking inspiration from the turbulent horizons of Oxford’s collegiate buildings, while also making reference to the decorating style of arts and crafts. inspired by William Morris, who studied at university. . The roof is also a bit of a dragon, which might have appealed to another Exeter alumnus, JRR Tolkien.
Otherwise, the exterior is clad in a pale, respectful stone of a sort that the city abounds in. Two U-shaped courts are formed, each open on one side, designed as less inward-facing versions of the traditional Oxford quadrangle. One faces the gardens of neighboring Worcester College, the other faces a domestic-scale street that runs along one side of the Cohen Quad site.
The wooden arch descends on one side of one of these courtyards, the concrete on the other. Together they form a central spine from which you can access the main functions of the building. In the center, in the break between the two arcades, is a ‘learning commons’, an open area on several levels where students can sit with their laptops or play with their phones, chat or look out the window. or do whatever helps their intellectual cogs turn.
Architecture becomes louder in the auditorium, a place of push and pull, lightness and punch. It has an arch in two halves, with a low bulbous section suspended in defiance of gravity from a rising convex part, both formed of a free-form wooden Gothic made up of wooden struts and ribs. Student rooms are quiet, made with durable materials including cherry wood and concrete, with an additional small window to diffuse daylight onto a built-in desk. The scholars’ 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 dug into the earth, and continues to give you a view of the modest terraces and grand institutions around. It also takes you back in time, with its references to quads, cloisters and stone walls of old Oxford in what is simply a contemporary building.
The Quad Cohen isn’t quite perfect: Something terrible has happened to the wall with the neighboring garden, which looks like a cheap wooden fence, and some of the encounters of its multiple shapes and materials work better than others. It’s also had a bumpy ride to get here: It was almost finished four years ago, but some construction issues followed by the pandemic mean it can only be fully appreciated now. But it’s a rare thing to see architecture that is both so imaginative and thoughtful, where ideas about how people might live and work together shape everything from a large roof to a small office window.
The Anniversary building because another Oxford college, St Hilda’s, also plays with tradition. The idea here was to make the most of an asset – the college’s long, leafy frontage on the River Cherwell – while addressing a weakness, which is to unify what was a jumble of existing buildings. So architects Jay Gort and Fiona Scott, who like Brooks have thoughtful housing projects to their credit, designed a long elbow block that echoes the meander of the river and added an entrance tower with a crown-shaped top. They have set up an entertainment and conference pavilion at the water’s edge, whose glass walls allow you to enjoy the view. A newly replanted landscape runs between the buildings.
Like the Cohen Quad, the Anniversary Building plays with history and building materials, while providing student rooms, common rooms, and spaces for teaching and functions. The idea here is that the old form of the quadrangle has been rolled out, so that you get a riverside garden rather than the traditional enclosure, while also creating a sheltered and reflective place. The simple masonry of the long block is scalloped and gathered at the top, so that it captures light and shade well. Occasionally the ironwork bursts into patterns of oak leaves. It’s not quite the tour de force that the Cohen Quad is – interiors are a more familiar affair of white painted plasterboard – but it’s still a thoughtful, civilized design piece.
All of this leaves me wishing there was more work like this outside of the privileged enclaves of Oxford. It certainly helps that a venerable institution like Exeter College can attract funds from someone like venture capitalist and philanthropist Ronald Cohen, but it’s not all about the money. Alison Brooks argues that at a construction cost of £ 30million for around 6,000 square meters of housing, the building she designed is not excessively expensive. More important, she says, is the absence of a corporate mindset that believes educational places should be built like office buildings.
Commissioning at Oxford probably has a lot to do with self-confidence and a sense of the past. But there is no fundamental reason why the qualities of buildings such as the Cohen Quad and the Anniversary Building cannot be more widely available. In the meantime, they should be appreciated for the accomplishments that they are.