When the University of Oxford announced it was planning to redevelop a 10-acre plot previously occupied by a large hospital, the adjacent college - Somerville - was presented with an opportunity to create a whole new entrance and frontage for the north side of its grounds.
The end result is a compelling example of timber's ability to integrate sensitively with older surrounding buildings while introducing distinctively modern architectural elements.
To allow Somerville College to create an attractive façade to face the new development, and also to build much needed additional student accommodation on the site, the University of Oxford transferred ownership of a six-metre-wide parcel of land, running right along the 175-metre-long boundary.
The plot was just wide enough for one student room and a connecting passageway, but its length meant that 68 rooms could be created in total – enabling almost all of the college’s undergraduates to be accommodated on site.
The rooms all overlook a newly created lane which now runs between the college and the new development. This created the aesthetic challenge of designing a long façade that would be visually interesting and attractive to people viewing it at a very narrow angle from the new lane.
Projecting timber window bays to mark each room have been used to deliver a dynamic view that changes completely with a viewer’s position – from one direction they see mostly glass and from another only the deep oak fenestration.
In the middle of the building, a new entrance to the quadrangle has been created, allowing a new view from inside the college to the historic Radcliffe Observatory, after which the new university development is named.
This view is framed by timber and glass towers that sit above the stairwells at each end of both buildings. Externally, these give the buildings their most distinctive architectural features while internally they create light and airy stairwell spaces that feel welcoming to the student residents as they enter the building.
For Somerville College, the building plays the vital role of re-orienting the historic institution towards a major new university centre. Timber has been deployed perfectly here as the bridge between old and new.