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Modern quad: Pembroke College by Berman Guedes Stretton

Berman Guedes Stretton’s extension to Pembroke College is conservative but successful, writes Tom Ravenscroft. Photography by Quintin Lake

J ames Gowan’s axiom ‘the style for the job’ has served Alan Berman’s Oxford-based practice well. Berman Guedes Stretton (BGS) has never had a planning application refused in the city - an impressive feat, given it has completed numerous schemes for 13 Oxford colleges, often in historically sensitive locations.

The practice’s latest addition to its growing portfolio of collegiate architecture, and its largest scheme to date, is a £17 million extension to Pembroke College.

The history of Oxford colleges has been one of constant pressure to upgrade their facilities and in this regard Pembroke is typical. Since the Old Quad was laid out 500 years ago, there have been numerous alterations: in the early 19th century, the first major expansion saw the creation of the Chapel Quad, identified by Pevsner as ‘the great asset of Pembroke’, while the original quad was given a uniform Cotswold stone facade. In the 1960s, the college grew again with the enclosure of a once private road to create the North Quad.

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Through the acquisition of several parcels of land adjacent to its city-centre site, but on the other side of the street, Pembroke College had a rare opportunity for a significant expansion in the direct vicinity of its existing buildings. To offer students the modern facilities needed in an increasingly competitive education market, Pembroke decided to double the footprint of the college with the addition of around 100 en suite rooms. The increase in capacity would allow the college to provide all students with accommodation throughout their years of study. The brief also called for seminar rooms, a café, a governing body room and a multi-purpose auditorium - a requisite addition for colleges looking to capitalise from conference-facility revenue.

What BGS has achieved is a considered extension that does not feel like a disconnected annex. The expansion is connected both physically and visually to the college’s historic fabric, while its modern interpretation of a quad references traditional college architecture, but avoids mimicking it.

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Just as 100 years ago Hertford College tied together its Old and New Quads with the Bridge of Sighs, BGS has connected old and new with a Corten and glass bridge. Engineered by Price & Myers, the counterweighted bridge springs over the protected medieval city wall to connect the new development directly with the Chapel Quad. While the bridge will be a point of interest for students, it also allows Pembroke to maintain a single entrance though its porter’s lodge, ensuring that the extension will function as an integrated part of this close-knit community.

The success of the extension rests with the architect’s decision to recreate collegiate architecture’s most notable feature, the quad. The invitation-only design competition for the project included proposals by Allies and Morrison, ADP, Dixon Jones, MJP Architects and Nicholas Hare Architects, but uniquely BGS’s winning design pushed the buildings to the perimeter of the site. This arrangement, which involved the removal of several existing buildings, uses the adjacent Lutyens-designed Campion Hall to form one side of what, in the loosest terms, could be described as a quad.

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But this is by no means a traditional Oxford quad: the buildings that enclose it vary in height and finish, buildings are accessed from corridors rather than staircases, a series of terraces intrude into it and most importantly, as only half of the open-space is owned by the college, a dividing wall cuts the square in two. This does not detract, however, from the fact that when you are in this outdoor space or in the rooms that look onto it, you feel like you are in an Oxford college.The feeling is reinforced by obvious nods towards traditional college architecture. The tallest of the new buildings, which is intended to visually enclose the three-sided Chapel Quad, includes a modern, third tower for the college - the other two mark the dining hall and entrance. The dual-aspect governing-body room in this building symbolically ties the extension to the existing fabric of the college with bay windows that give views into both the new and old quads.

Oxford colleges build for the long term. BGS has created a calm extension that already feels like a natural step in Pembroke’s development. While another architect might have created a more exciting building for people to look at (and critics to write about), they might not have achieved ‘the style for the job’ - nor, indeed, won planning.

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