Design Engine’s John Ridgett talks to onoffice about redeveloping Oxford Brookes University’s main campus, for which it has won three RIBA awards this year.
Like celebrity offspring languishing in the shadows of their parents’ success, Oxford Brookes University once struggled to establish its own identity. Sharing a town and part of its name with one of the best-known universities in the world, meant it was sniffily referred to it as “the new university”.
Yet, the former polytechnic has grown in reputation over recent years. Sadly, its campus, originally built in 1950, had succumbed to a number of piecemeal extensions that blighted the university’s ambitions. In 2007, Oxford Brookes drafted in Winchester-based architects Design Engine to unravel the mess.
The practice proposed demolishing the later additions, revamping the robust original 50s structure while adding two new buildings to create a dynamic blend of social and academic spaces. However the Headington site, which lay outside the historic city, was a double-edged sword, presenting a blank canvas contextually but something of a minefield when it came to the concerns of local residents.
Following a consultation, the practice secured planning at the second attempt by creating a basement level for the archives and reading room, thereby lowering the building by one storey, and obscuring the views from the windows overlooking the housing. These moves added a cool £1.5m to the project’s cost.
Construction was carried out in two phases beginning in 2010. The Abercrombie Building was finished in 2012, and the John Henry Brookes (JHB) Building – the larger of the two – was completed in January 2014. Together, their total floor area is 24,320sq m, and their construction cost £83m.
To unify the original and the new parts of the campus, Design Engine introduced the concept of a glowing box interpenetrated by pegs, which visually and socially interconnect with the existing campus. The ‘glowing box’ relates to the main social spaces at the centre of the two new buildings, while the pegs are the spaces and structures that lead off it.
The Abercrombie Building contains the faculty of technology, design and environment, and combines the architecture, planning and construction departments under one roof for the first time. A long atrium structure – the glowing box – dissects the building, and contains a café, a gallery, and an experimental learning space. It stretches up five storeys to a glass roof and is overlooked by the various faculty departments from behind internal windows and balconies.
“There’s a whole series of bridges, some solid and some completely made of glass, that span across the space, so you can stand back and observe, and that reflects the idea of teaching and learning being transparent,” says Ridgett.
“At the planning stage, there was a lot of resistance [to the design], but everyone’s completely brought into it now and it’s become a far more dynamic environment.”
Similarly, the JHB Building centres around the forum, a large social learning area that contains a variety of contemporary office-style, break-out spaces. The main lecture theatre – an accordion-like structure – hovers overhead, literally placing learning at the heart of the system. The open-plan space merges with student services and catering on the lower ground floor and the library on the first and third floors.
“There’s a natural tendency for people to think in silos about the different areas,” says Ridgett, “but we broke down the boundaries between them and that’s a big part of the building – the line where one stops and the next starts is blurred.”
Most contentiously, Design Engine continued the open-plan design into the library.
“Ordinarily, you walk into a library university through turnstiles, using a key card for security purposes, but we put in discreet glass book detectors instead, like [the ones] you have when you go into shops, so you can flow between the spaces without feeling that you’re moving from one section to the next,” says Ridgett.
To contain the noise from the forum the practice worked with acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates applying specialist finishes to douse the sound, including class-A acoustic panels that are visually indistinct to the building’s dark grey concrete cladding. “Some libraries obsess about quiet, but you need an element of white noise, otherwise the smallest little thing becomes irritating,” says Ridgett. “[In the Oxford Brookes library], there are areas where you have complete silence, and others that open onto the forum and have a slightly buzzier feel.
The quiet areas are positioned behind book stacks, which effectively dampen sound, and this allows them to remain visually connected, while being isolated from any noise.
The section of the library that connects with the forum is kitted out with workstations and soft seating from the likes of Orange Box, Broadstock and Boss Design creating a space similar to modern office breakout areas.
A number of visual cues help connect the various buildings and create a sense of flow within and between them. A pared-back colonnade, which retains classical proportions but is made from weathered steel, wraps around one side of the piazza. This tapers into a ribbon of steel that snakes around the JHB Building and acts as a balustrade leading to the front doors. It continues through the interior, until it reaches the main food hall where it stretches out into six-metre-tall panelling that has the cellular structure of timber laser cut into it.
The motif is a wry nod to the university’s original logo – a tree to represent growth and learning and, more literally, wood and paper. The practice sourced images of the cell structures of oak, pine and lime from the university’s faculty of life sciences, and incorporated them into the designs for the forum, library and food hall respectively.
In the library and forum, they have been grafted onto the window glass in the form of a ceramic skin made up of minute-leaf-print pixels that form an abstract pattern from a distance. The motif was more than mere applique, however, also providing solar shading. In the library, which overlooks housing to the west, the architects added three-storey glass fins, featuring the pine motif, that direct the line of sight away from the residential area.
Ridgett asserts that time spent redesigning the building prior to gaining planning permission, undoubtedly resulted in a stronger, and more nuanced design.
The building’s core materials, concrete, steel and wood, are tempered by coloured glass and ‘ribbons’ of colour which also provide navigation through the various spaces.
“The main staircase rises up through the centre of the library with a flash of hot pink running through it, and you get glimpses of that wherever you are. We also used ribbons of colour that run down the corridors and flow through the various breakout areas – drinking fountains, toilets, recycling points and so on.”
One of the façades features fins in three different shades of pink that cast light into the building in a kaleidoscope of hues that shift with the time of day or year. And rather than glaze the entire roof, the light is controlled by a series of slots that allow shafts of light to reach through the building and create an ever-changing interplay of light and shadows on the textured concrete.
Since the opening of the Abercrombie building in 2012, the architecture school has experienced a rise in applications for its courses. The JHB Building opened in March this year, and the initial reaction from staff members has been positive.
While student response to the new campus has yet to be gauged, the project is an undoubted success, having won three RIBA awards in 2014, including ‘Building of the year’ and a sustainability award.
RIBA 2014 awards
Building of the Year: John Henry Brookes & Abercrombie, Oxford Brookes University
RIBA Award: John Henry Brookes & Abercrombie, Oxford Brookes University
Sustainability Award: John Henry Brookes & Abercrombie, Oxford Brookes University