What William Morris - who complained, rather more than a century ago, about the 'vulgarisation' of Oxford - would have made of the university city in 1999, the Cowley Works, Blackbird Leys estate, and the Oxford Business Park included, is hard to imagine. Morris blamed 'modern commercial dons' for the damage inflicted on his alma mater, but the present century has seen Oxford break free of the dons and develop into a sprawling and mundane Midlands industrial town. Much of outer Oxford is indistinguishable from the fringes of, say, Swindon - a far remove from the rarefied world of dreaming spires.
'Commercial dons' - in the form of the president and fellows of Magdalen College - are, in fact, the joint developers (with Prudential Assurance) of the Oxford Science Park, an initiative launched in 1991, presumably as a response to the phenomenal growth of research-based industries around Cambridge. The park is aimed at 'knowledge-based businesses' - some of them the kind of organisations which might be found at Stockley Park, but others more clearly linked to the science and technology faculties of the University.
Where Stockley Park led, others followed - though rarely with the same success. But the Oxford Science Park has, thanks to landscape architect and masterplanner Robert Rummey Associates, made something memorable out of a deeply unpromising 30 hectare site on the ring road, south of the city centre. (One of the odder landmarks in the area is the rusting shell of Robert Maxwell's new football stadium - abandoned when planning consent to redevelop the existing ground was refused.) The landscape is - particularly given the exposed and windswept character of the site - already impressive and potentially outstanding. But most of the architecture produced under phase I of the masterplan is relatively ordinary, the usual mix of pitched roofs, yellow brick and blue-tinted glass. Even Ian Ritchie's Northbrook House, a recent addition, is, despite its dynamic form, a disappointment, thanks to a bland rendered cladding applied without the approval of the architects.
Proctor Matthews' John Eccles House (named, like other buildings in the park, after a famous Oxford scientist) stands out in this context for its integrity, sure sense of style and strong personality, all achieved within the constraints of a tight budget. The significance of the site, a gateway to the park off the new link road, was reflected in a strong shortlist of practices for the commission - Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Stephen Hodder and Robinson Thorne were the unsuccessful contenders. 'We saw ourselves as the outsiders', says Stephen Proctor. 'It wasn't the kind of job we'd tackled before.' Unfamiliarity often produces a fresh and innovative approach. Proctor Matthews set out to design a building with real presence and an appropriate image, reasserting the special quality of the place as a real centre of excellence, not just a business park under another name.
The scheme is rooted in the Rummey masterplan, which Stephen Proctor sees as the foundation of its success. The building was to form an edge to the development, reinforcing the sense of enclosure and containment, opening up to a landscaped square on one side, but presenting a strong, even defensive, front to the road. In urban design terms, there was a strong case for a curved or faceted block on the site, but the practical and financial arguments dictated a more pragmatic rectangle - creating flexible, lettable space was, after all, the object of the exercise. The rectangle had to be firmly anchored to the site, an issue addressed by an extension and refinement of the landscape strategy. A curved gabion wall (interlocking metal cages filled with rough masonry) is used to form the requisite defensive edge. Behind the enclosing wall, a quiet garden - 'captured landscape', as the architects describe it - has been created, with trellises and planting to reinforce the sense of enclosure. This promises to be a real amenity for the future occupiers.
Proctor Matthews' work over the last decade has been characterised by a strong sense of place (founded on a solid grounding in urban design) and a passion for good materials. This puts it at odds with the bland universalism of much science/business park design. At John Eccles House, it has created a micro-landscape which enhances the sense of arriving at a distinct place - not just another 'unit'. A projecting canopy denotes the entrance to the building, approached via a ramp and a flight of steps covered in hard-wearing, non-slip blue glass chippings. This touch of rhetoric - a reference to Corbusier's Salvation Army hostel, says Proctor - relieves the austerity of the exterior. The basic cladding material, applied to the steel frame, is stack-bonded concrete blocks, but an element of variety and distinctiveness is infused by the addition of timber filigree screening, ceramic panels and steel mesh. The basic rectangle, containing three open-plan floors, has been transmuted into a trapezoid form by the neat concentration of services in triangular wedges at either end of the block - wcs, lifts and showers to the north, external plant behind the steel decking to the south. The building is a speculative development and the precise servicing needs of future users could not be addressed. If it were to be filled with laboratories, requiring full air-conditioning, there is ample scope for the services stack to be greatly augmented with no detriment to the overall look of the building. Lower-tech users might appreciate the availability of opening windows on all floors, and a high- level sun-screen provides an effective baffle for the western facade.
Proctor Matthews' roots lie in the school of Stirling, rather than the High-Tech - collaborations with practitioners like Ralph Erskine and Peter Aldington come naturally to the practice. Yet its dialogue with history is a subtle one - a far remove from the watered-down pastiche which often dominates in the business park world. Like others of its generation, Proctor Matthews is unafraid to draw on a variety of sources, so that the services stack at John Eccles House has a High-Tech look, while the inherent formalism of the scheme looks to another tradition. The architect's written exposition of the building cites 'clear references . . . made to the historical lineage evident in the built traditions of Magdalen College. . . . The plan configuration echoes that of the traditional collegiate form.' How? The building does not need this special pleading (and Magdalen has, of course, opted for straight historicism for recent developments on its own hallowed site).
John Eccles House - Sir John was an expert on nerve cells and a Nobel Prize winner in 1963 - is a fertile contribution to the 'other Oxford', a city of ring roads, rundown housing estates and mega-Macdonald's. It suggests that the technological and scientific revolution of the millennium has implications not just for the national economy but equally for the quality of urban life.
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