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ABK slams Mather's Keble College extension


abk was up in arms this week over controversial new plans by Rick Mather Architects to demolish a single-storey section of the practice's Grade II* listed de Breyne building at Keble College, Oxford and replace it with a new four-storey residential block.

abk's Peter Ahrends said that the new, bright red-coloured building designs would 'completely violate' the principles on which abk's original riba award-winning scheme was based - that of respect for the existing Grade I listed William Butterfield building nearby. English Heritage (eh), which only listed the acclaimed 1970 abk structure last October, has raised no objections to the scheme, while Oxford City Council has already granted planning consent and is minded to give it listed building approval. Environment secretary John Prescott wrote to the council on 15 December, saying he will not intervene.

Ahrends was first contacted by Mather's office late last summer, with a fax informing him that the practice had been commissioned to work on a refurbishment of the building, which features student residences, fellows' rooms and communal facilities. Ahrends said he was led to believe this would be to do with updating shower rooms and furniture and was assured in writing by Mather that no demolition would be involved. 'Anything we suggest would respect your design for the building which we like and admire,' wrote Mather.

The Twentieth Century Society, which initially prompted the listing because it was informed that Keble had development plans threatening the building, has now objected strongly to the proposals and sightlines which will be affected by the new building. Director Kenneth Powell said: 'It seems quite inconsistent that English Heritage should list it at Grade II* and three months later consent should be given to demolish part of it. However good the architecture, some of these college sites are being overdeveloped.'

Another twist is that one of Lord Rogers' sons studied at the college in the 1970s and Rogers himself penned a 'wonderful and positive' piece on the building's respectful design - which was never published. Ahrends is now trying to persuade such people, along with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, to support a campaign to preserve the building. He has also written to eh to complain of the 'outrage' of the proposed demolition, since it 'virtually obliterates' the views of the Butterfield building allowed for in abk's stepped building form and of how it creates a precedent for another adjacent four-storey alternative. 'We achieved a composition that created contextual harmony,' wrote Ahrends. 'This in a time (in the 1970s) when the carelessness of modernity was all too often evident in relation to the historic fabric of our cities and towns.'

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