Oxford is a region that gleams with academia: its globally recognised Oxford University is the oldest in the English-speaking world and the city is dominated by its high-class educational offering.
Of course, this is in itself far from negative, but can Oxford break out of its constricted college persona? Does it have more to offer than a rich historical past, and how will it face the future?
One of the UK’s smaller cities – with an estimated population of 170,350 recorded in 2016 – Oxford is just 51 miles from London in central southern England. The University of Oxford was first mentioned in 12th century records, and its first colleges were built around eight centuries ago. Its prestige and wide-reaching recognition means that the university averages nine applications for every available place and attracts 40% of its academic staff and 17% of undergraduates from overseas. It’s even ranked as the world’s number one university by The Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
This progression certainly isn’t slowing down any time soon. Design Engine, the Winchester and London-based architecture studio, recently won a student accommodation project for the university’s St Peter’s College. The practice has an existing relationship with the college, having completed its Hubert Perrodo Building in May.
Beginning in 2014, this saw a dramatic expansion of the college, introducing a new building to the site to enhance study, teaching and living standards, while improving the public spaces on the main site. The new structure features a quiet study space on the ground floor, six en-suite bedrooms and a meeting room on the top floor with a roof terrace; it’s the first multi-level building to be built on the college’s main campus in 20 years.
Design Engine’s founding director, Richard Rose-Casemore, comments: “Observing the new building and its new quads being used imaginatively is very rewarding to us as architects. Our theme is designed carefully around listed neighbours and across the numerous level changes, and will provide a rich mix of communal areas, social spaces and study bedrooms.”
Beyond the university, other students in the city are building connections with business. The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has joined forces with the Rycotewood Furniture Centre – a respected furnituremaking programme at the City of Oxford College – to produce a series of storage pieces out of American red oak.
The collaboration, originally conceived as a way to introduce students to red oak as a new material, also aims to maintain the skill of furniture-making in the area. “Oxford does not have a significant range of craft or design programmes and in a city of academics we can often feel hidden,” says Joseph Bray, programme coordinator at Rycotewood.
To combat this, the project is “particularly keen to involve students at the outset of their careers”, as European director of AHEC, David Venables, emphasises. “With this project, they have demonstrated huge creativity, inventiveness and making skill. They have also demonstrated that red oak has untapped potential in furniture and interior applications.”
But educational focus is not all that’s on show in the county town, particularly from a workplace and commercial property viewpoint. “Oxford is a city that is often thought of as historic and dominated by academia, but the occupier market is anything but,” explains Charles Rowton-Lee, head of commercial agency at Savills Oxford.
“Accommodation provided by Oxford University, such as The Oxford Foundry, encourages collaboration and a space for the university to host workshops, delivers support programmes for startups and a place to host guest speakers,” he says. “We are seeing more demand for spaces that complement the student population. They’re necessary in ensuring we retain a higher number of graduates, which is something that’s important for the future of our city.”
In a broader sense, the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc has been described as the one of the “most productive and innovative places, delivering growth and prosperity for the whole country” – according to the National Infrastructure Commission report, Partnering for Prosperity: A new deal for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc.
The report goes on to explain that the success of these places is not guaranteed, and without swift action will fail to attract and retain the talent and skills it needs. Two project in particular that are aiding this progression within the local Oxford area and its surroundings are the East West Rail and Expressway schemes.
These proposals – for a railway that connects East Anglia with central, southern and western England and a road connecting Oxford and Cambridge – promise to provide one million new homes within the arc by 2050, starting with a housing deal for 100,000 properties in Oxfordshire by 2031.
Adam King, communications manager of East West Rail, says: “[The project] will drastically reduce journey times within the region, bringing key economic and cultural centres within easy reach of each other. It will boost the regional economy, open up new job and leisure opportunities and provide the infrastructure to support sustainable housing growth, alongside giving people an alternative to travelling by car.”
He also announces that the line between Oxford and Bedford should be open by 2023, which means that many new opportunities for growth are on the horizon. Perhaps this extra accessibility will give the location the kick-start it needs to futureproof itself as a sustainable region?
MEB Design, an architecture firm with a presence in Oxford, London and Kent, recently completed a project that adheres to the futureproofed mixed-use development trend currently steering the industry. The Frilford Heath Golf Club, near Abingdon, is recognised as one of the top golf venues in the south of England, MEB was briefed to design new facilities that would improve members’ golfing experience, comprising a new welcome centre, shop, performance studio and offices – complete with terrace and putting green.
Maybe we will see more projects like this on the horizon, as Oxford becomes more connected and the relationship between education, residential and commercial is blended. It’s certainly a region that’s worth keeping an eye on.
Although the city’s academic performance remains a strong driver of development, new transport links and a growing commercial focus are updating its ivory-tower image