Edward Jones on the latest manifestation of Richard MacCormac’s longstanding relationship with St John’s College.
Kendrew Quadrangle at St John’s is among the largest Oxford college projects to be built for some years. Designed and detailed to a very high standard and beautifully built to a very generous budget, it is also a very green building with a near zero-carbon rating. A nod of appreciation is due to MJP’s project architect Tony Pryor and David Rose. Also, a tip of the chapeau to the bursar, Tony Boyce, for championing Richard MacCormac’s office over the last two decades.
As it happens, my practice was among those invited by St John’s to compete for the project and so some of my remarks, from the Salon de Refusé, might conveniently be dismissed as sour grapes. On the other hand, in the spirit of collegiate debate, it might be said that as an architect who has confronted the same problems one is well equipped to appreciate the achievements and frailties of others.
St John’s College has an extensive frontage along St Giles, which the Kendrew Quad has further extended. For the visitor this results inevitably in an ambiguity of entrance from the street. It is somehow in the nature of the given site that the pavement along St Giles will always provide a more credible connection between the various parts of the college than is apparent from within. In addition, as a result of the accretive nature of Oxford’s fabric there is inevitably some confusion as to what belongs to which college – St John’s versus Trinity, New College versus St Edmund Hall, and so on. When I visited the site in 2003, my first impression was of a surprisingly leafy suburbia, resulting from the combination of a series of linked and generous back gardens with some magnificent mature trees to the large houses facing directly onto St Giles. The place was distinct and separate from the main college.
At the time of the competition, two opposing strategies presented themselves – either a distributed version in which an independent garden idea might provide a context for the new buildings, maximising the site and acting as a foil to the existing quadrangles, or a version establishing a new quadrangle in the college tradition. To build a quadrangle in Oxbridge would seem a relatively obvious thing to do – it is the quintessential type regularly deployed in the service of colleges for the past 500 years. However for many the idea of enclosing space in this historic manner was seen as antipathetic to modern architecture with its commitment to the freestanding object heroically looking to the future. For Richard MacCormac, perimeter development has been a preoccupation for half a century, since the early 1960s, when a critique of this tendency was under way under the general title of low-rise, high-density housing. The analytical studies of Leslie Martin and Lionel March at the Centre for Land Use & Built Studies were the Cambridge School of Architecture’s contribution to this debate. Martin and March persuasively argued that to build around the perimeter of square areas of land would achieve relatively high densities without recourse to high buildings. Such propositions in hindsight might appear obvious – commonsensical even – with the London square as paradigm. Richard MacCormac was a student at Cambridge during this period, and a few years later he dramatically demonstrated an early application of ‘land-use built-form’ at the London Borough of Merton. I remember the exhilaration of first seeing the prototypical site plan for Eastfields from the late 1960s, in which modern architecture and the archaic idea of enclosing space were drawn together.
The new Kendrew Quadrangle, set back from St Giles, manages cleverly to incorporate the existing buildings and the mature trees into a general site strategy. Typically, Oxford colleges are distinguished by fine historic buildings which exert a certain conformity and good manners on later additions. In this case, the architect has a licence to be himself. A monumental beech tree has been influential on the configuration of rooms, if not on the manner of the architecture. The architect has ingeniously related the trunk of this great tree to the axis of the entrance from St Giles (seen as a fragment from the entrance hall), which in turn is situated perpendicular to the axis of the residential court. Open to the south and the rest of the garden, the quadrangle and the beech tree appear to have an inevitable relationship. One is reminded of MacCormac’s chapel at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge where, coincidentally, another giant beech tree from another nineteenth century garden, seen through the chapel window, became a focus for the congregation.
The site plan and this ‘conceptual field’ extends to make sense of the retained existing buildings and their gardens and courts, forming part of the larger whole. This elementary hierarchy is a real achievement, characterised by the formality of the central quad and a series of inter-related, smaller service spaces behind.
The ground floor is devoted to communal uses for the college as a whole – dining, library, archive – with the student rooms above. This results in two systems of circulation. A cloistered walk on the ground floor is part external as pergola and part internal, embedded and glazed above. Independent access to the study bedrooms is from the garden court via two external stairs, leading to a roof terrace across bridges to two corner spiral staircases that are curiously suspended above the ground. It is a condition of the cloister as a type that the ground floor is prime, with all circulation and principal rooms related to it, or that should the ground floor become a base, the principal rooms would then be positioned on the first floor, or piano nobile. In this case, I believe we have a mild confusion of these two classical ideas – the principal public spaces are at ground level while the vertical circulation system for the building as a whole begins at first-floor level. It is certainly no piano nobile, as the accommodation on this floor is the same as any other.
The elevations confirm the relative status of these various spaces. A system of precast concrete cross-walls convincingly establishes an elementary and generalising grid to the three elevations defining the central court. Each bay is then ‘furnished’ in timber, in a Kahnian manner. One is mildly bemused by the degree of complexity brought to bear on the perennial issue of designing windows. If the inspiration for the quad came from the college’s famous Canterbury Quadrangle of 1636, one can only conclude that this had to do with the plan rather than the elevations – it seems either a particular contemporary obsession to defend the interior of our buildings as though from a tyrannical and tropical sun, or that these complex inventions are a surrogate for the contemporary absence of decoration. One might further observe that the magnificent beech tree also provides a brise soleil for the summer months. The east and west (back) elevations are its opposite – appropriately bumpy, idiosyncratic and clad in stone. The north elevation is problematic, for here we have the same elevation as the court but without the brise soleil. In these secondary facades the high rhetoric of the kitchens and their splendid fully-glazed open corners are a further confusion.
The individual study bedrooms are of a very high standard. St John’s, like most colleges, is in unofficial competition for the lucrative conference business during the holidays. This is not necessarily to suggest a culture of ‘hot beds’ but certainly the modest undergraduate gets to experience the five-star standard of the corporate executive. To this end, the room has been designed along wagon-lit principles, with each function clearly determined and beautifully designed. The bathrooms are standard and prefabricated in Italy. The rooms are arranged simply along the corridors, further confirming the hotel model as opposed to a traditional collegiate ‘set’ of rooms. Communal kitchens are positioned conveniently at the corners with their panoramic windows.
Looking out from one of the kitchens towards William Butterfield’s neo-gothic Keble College (1870-76), one can see brought together in this short stretch of Blackhall Road many of the principal players in Oxford’s brief story of modern architecture: set in its own grounds next door is Leslie Martin’s Mathematics Institute (1960); opposite, Rick Mather’s two residential ‘wall’ buildings (1995 and 2002) in matching red brick for Keble; further down the road, ABK’s defensive street elevation of residences, also for Keble (1977); and finally MacCormac’s new entrance for St John’s. In their various ways, these buildings accurately reflect the successes and challenges of working in Oxford, overlooked in the background by the exacting and ‘sublime’ presence of Butterfield. As the latest addition to this local lineage of modern interventions, MJP Architects’ Kendrew Quadrangle is a thoughtful response to both the certainties of tradition and an uncertain future.
Edward Jones is a principal at Dixon Jones, whose current projects include the second phase of the Saïd Business School in Oxford and the masterplan for Chelsea Barracks in London.
Architect: MJP Architects; design team: Chris Burrows, Robert Buss, Jennifer Chalkley, Russell Clayton, Sebastian Drewes, Jeremy Estop, Yll Krasnici, Paul Loh, Rohit Madan, Richard MacCormac, Tony Pryor, Sally Quinn, David Rose, Matteo Sarno, Pam Trim, Anurag Verma, Isabella Zhang; main contractor: Kingerlee; structural engineer: Price & Myers; services engineer: Michael Popper Associates; qs, planning supervisor: Northcroft; clerk of works; Howard Busby; acoustic engineer: Arup Acoustics; art consultant: Modus Operandi (Vivien Lovell); artists: Alex Beleschenko, Langlands & Bell, Ian Monroe, Wendy Ramshaw; disability and access: Buro Happold; fire engineering: Arup Fire; catering consultant: King Design Consultancy; planning consultant: Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners; cleaning/access consultant: Lerch Bates & Associates; archaeology: Oxford Archaeology, Thames Valley Archaeology Services; rights of light consultant: Brooke Vincent & Partners; planning consultant: C Buchanan; cladding consultant: Astec Projects; modelmaker: Enterprise Models; visualisations: Peter Hull; client: St John’s College.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Contractor’s services coordinator: Hoare Lea; electrical engineers: RT Harris; mechanical engineers: FG Alden; external cladding systems: Astec; precast concrete: Decomo; stone cladding, paving: Commercial Stone; curtain walling, specialist glazing: Solaglas; roofing: Fenland, Tego Roofing; joinery: Kingerlee; ironmongery: Allgood; student kitchens: Alno; gates: Anthony Walters; fascias, soffits: Bailey Eaves Systems; steel frame fabricators: Barwest; smoke/fire curtains: Cooper Fire & Smoke; ceilings: DCP; prefabricated bathrooms: European Ensuite, Sterchele; mansafe systems: HCL; doors: Hilsons; lifts: Kone; soft furnishings: Labetts; louvres: Levolux, Alps; acoustic isolated floors: Mason; toilet cubicles: Amwell & Prospsec; thermal heating systems: Rayotec; geothermal systems: GSSL; biomass systems: Wood Energy; architectural metalwork: SBG; underfloor heating: Shires; photovoltaic systems: Solar Century; kitchen fit-out: PCD.
AT213/ November 10, p74