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A great Gatsby: Saïd Business School by Dixon Jones

With its Phase 2 West Wing of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, Dixon Jones has created a distinctive new oasis for young thrusters, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Paul Riddle

The face and flank of the West Wing of the Saïd Business School in Oxford is not an obviously fashionable architectural composition: the Rich Tea biscuit bricks, the stepped black granite Deco frame around the entrance portal, the oriel window thrusting outward from the facade like a chunky vitrine.

You might imagine that you had passed through the gargling buses and taxis in the corral outside Oxford station only to be confronted by a PoMo collage, beyond which young, corporatised executives pay about £3,000 a day to learn how to be the dreaming squires of international business and finance.

In the cuboid entrance hall, surfaces continue to dominate perception. The butcher’s slab sheen of the wainscot’s Carrara marble, selected by Dixon Jones’ project architect, Michael Trigg, at the Pocai works in Tuscany; the grey pietra serena sandstone underfoot; the off-white paint and gold-painted inscription; the pale ribs of the oak furnishings. It’s the architectural equivalent of a beautifully tailored suit-lining.

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And yet Dixon Jones’ characteristic pursuit of refined details seems a relatively trivial issue in this building, whose more resonant design value lies in its architectural relationship with the original 2001 Saïd Business School building abutting it to the south-east, and the landscaped gardens keyed into the meagre, 900-year-old remains of Rewley Abbey, which forms the north-eastern third of the 5.2 acre site, owned by the billionaire (and architecture aficionado) Wafic Saïd.

The West Wing’s primary ordering device is a straight, six-stage staircase rising through half the building’s 60m north-south axis. This is hardly a surprise: scala regia connections through glacial volumes are a Dixon Jones trademark: the National Portrait Gallery in 2000, Kings Place, the Royal Opera House, among others.

In Oxford, the staircase is critical to the division of space in what Dixon describes as a ‘very dense’ building, functionally. It brings natural light deep into the section from top-level, west-facing clerestory windows and makes room for a barely noticed services segment running through the middle of the long section.

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The stairs are rather narrow, but it’s precisely this restrained width that unlocks considerable academic and social space in the eastern half of the building. This includes the three shallow scallops of the Harvard-style lecture theatres on the ground floor, and three layers of smaller seminar rooms and offices along the western side of the building, where a ramp descends to a 20-car parking basement.

Above the Harvards, as they are known, are the salubrious Club Room and Dining Room levels - the latter a rather elegant, two-part volume with a truncated, copper-clad pyramidal roof above its northern segment.

The pressing together of the staircase and the services segment, just off-centre in the plan - ‘it took an enormous amount of trouble to make the plan look simple,’ according to Trigg - means that, although the 40m-wide West Wing covers two-fifths of the ground area of the original business school, it delivers a higher ratio of functional floor area.

This has allowed Jones to accentuate certain references and stylisms: the deliberately Stirlingesque zig-zag of glazing along the Club Room’s wide terrace; the nautical metal staircase spiralling up to the Dining Room terrace; the lavish Belgravia chic of Nina Campbell’s salon decor; and the nicely contrived view through the south-facing oriel, framing the weathered copper sulphate patina on the ziggurat of the original business school, and what Jones describes playfully as the ‘Italian rationalist or fascist’ perspective of its western flank.

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But far more significant than these architectural punctilios is the boldly orchestrated physicality and spatial definition of the east-facing architecture of the building, and the way it refers to the original school. It’s an adroit modelling of the experience of views and promenades - and shows how a new building can re-express the tectonic and material nature of its predecessor in a way that seems both familiar and surprising.

The West Wing can only be considered in ensemble terms. The original business school was founded on three literally big ideas, in terms of plan and base volumes: a capacious, south-facing hypostyle entrance on Park End Street; an open-air hippodrome bordered by giant-order cloisters that are effectively two-and-a-half storeys high; and a semi-circular amphitheatre. To move through these cloisters is to experience an unusual kind of monumentality: the conflation of classical and medieval formal languages has created an enclosed, earth-bound tableau where one walks either on glossily worn bricks, paving, or gravel.

The West Wing’s eastern elevation may be anchored in the same earth consecrated by Cistercians in the 13th century, but its architecture belongs to the realms of light, shadow, and entirely new outlooks over Oxford. The angular shadows that the pergola casts across the ramps rising from its base to the Club Room terrace remind Jones of Adolf Loos’ proposed black and white striped villa for the singer Josephine Baker. His exuberant suggestion is spoiled by the fact that the surfaces on which the umbral ribbons fall are beige or grey.

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Jones more accurately compares the stepped profile of the eastern facade to an ocean liner, and it’s easy to imagine Anthony Patch, a hyper-wealthy character in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Beautiful and the Damned, leaning on the handrail on the Dining Room terrace as if he were on the bridge deck of the Mauretania in 1925. At one point in the book, Patch announces: ‘I’m sick of all this shoddy realism.’

That remark cannot taint the architecture of the West Wing, whose programmatic pragmatism and convivial form-making has produced a composition that manages to suggest both the Jazz Age and something innovatively rus in urbe. The evolving formal articulacy has also created an architecturally eventful 270m-long public frontage that begins with the wide hypostyle of the original business school, turns northwards along the side of the bus station, right-angles left to create the entrance segment of the West Wing, and then turns north again to form its western flank.

Wafic Saïd’s architects have created a distinctive new oasis for young thrusters, most of whom might flinch at the existential desolation at the heart of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But in 10 or 20 years time, as they prepare to address board meetings in Shanghai or São Paulo, they may, for an acutely vivid moment, suddenly recall the facades, the spaces, the terraces and the giant pergola that was their academic harbour in the days before they understood, as Jay Gatsby put it, that ‘there are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired’.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

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