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Bonn Square, Oxford by Graeme Massie Architects

Graeme Massie Architects’ design for Bonn Square has encouraged the public to reclaim the historic but neglected space for itself, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by David Stewart

The redevelopment of Bonn Square in Oxford is the sort of project that usually hits the buffers. An out-of-town architect, hired by the council to rework a neglected town square, proposes removing the mature trees, paving over green space and expelling traders from the site. Graves will be disturbed and the boundary wall of a listed church will be demolished. It does, of course, contradict the Local Plan. Not in my back yard.

Yet Graeme Massie Architects’ design - the first completed by the firm - is a great example of what can be achieved when a decisive, open-minded council employs a talented architect. The £1.5 million project has transformed the once obstructive and incoherent square into a friendlier, more democratic space; one defined by a unified surface of honey-coloured sandstone, elegant street furniture and new, younger trees.

The most gratifying aspect of the project is Massie’s cultural leadership

The most gratifying aspect of the project, however, is not the happy client - which Oxford City Council most certainly is - or the public’s reaction - huge numbers flock to the square - but rather Massie’s cultural leadership: the clarity of his vision and attention to detail that gave the council the confidence to proceed with his controversial plans.

The project is rooted in the Oxford Public Realm Strategy developed by urban and landscape designers Gillespies and endorsed by planners in 2000. In 2005 the council asked the RIBA to oversee an international design competition for the square. A shortlist of six schemes was drawn up from the 93 submissions and in May that year, Edinburgh-based Graeme Massie Architects was named the winner. ‘The judges wanted a design that could respond to the council’s vision for a dynamic, inspirational city square,’ says Massie. ‘We were asked to be courageous in our thinking, be aware of the opportunities afforded by the enhanced role of Bonn Square in the city’s west end, and respect its setting within the University and City Conservation Area.’

The uncomfortable layout, degraded appearance and lack of natural surveillance made it the focus of anti-social behaviour

Bonn Square, so named in 1974 to celebrate links with Oxford’s twin town in Germany, dates from the 11th century and is the site of one of the city’s original gates. It is located at the convergence of four important commercial streets. The square developed in an ad-hoc manner, encompassing a memorial garden for the Grade II-listed Tirah Memorial, the forecourt of the Grade II-listed New Road Baptist Church, New Road and Queen Street to the south, and New Inn Hall Street to the east. It was marked by an elevated green space with three mature trees and retaining walls 2m high at the north end. Despite the flow of pedestrians, the uncomfortable layout, degraded appearance and lack of natural surveillance made it the focus of anti-social behaviour.

Massie’s scheme has unified this piecemeal development and created a more open space. The retaining walls and railings have been removed and the raised square remodelled to slope gradually down from the north end to Queen Street, with a series of steps at the eastern and western edges. The memorial now sits on a sandstone plinth matching the 100x100mm Clashach and Caithness setts.

Massie’s scheme has unified this piecemeal development and created a more open space

At the top of the western steps Massie has placed four 15m lighting masts featuring speakers. He has placed benches (fashioned from oak slatting and the same bronze-aluminium alloy as the masts) under the seven semi-mature new trees and along the retained westerly stone wall in front of the church. A sculpture of stacked books (a gift from Bonn) decorates the square’s north-western corner.

Reading Massie’s design statement - which is written with a clarity that eschews meaningless tags like ‘world-class’ - is a joy. It reaffirms my belief that architects can play a leading cultural role in reshaping Britain’s towns and cities. Digital renders are complemented by photographs of a beautiful handcrafted site model, which gives a better sense of the proposed space than the renders do. And Massie has diagrammed every aspect of the project. One shows the various options on how to deal with gravestones that the architect knew would be revealed, as a result of lowering the grade of the square. Many architects would have passed this off in a sentence or two, whereas Massie has chosen to highlight the solution. It suggests a compassionate engagement with the even the most prosaic issues.

Within this simple diagram can be found one of the architectural profession’s key strengths: the ability to codify complex proposals with simple graphics. Above and beyond the excellence of the architect’s strategy for Bonn Square, it was Massie’s ability to break down each aspect of the design so concisely that emboldened the council to believe in his proposal and dismiss the concerns of single-issue objectors.

Massie, though, prefers to acknowledge council planning consultant Fiona Bartholomew for maintaining faith in his scheme. Regardless, if all public realm projects worked out like this, Britain’s towns would be full of overseas admirers cooing over our ability to get things done.

Elements of Bonn Square

Trees
Robinia Pseudoacacia was chosen for its seasonal variation: fronds of blue-green leaves in spring; hanging clusters of pea-like, fragrant white blossoms in early summer; large dark brown pods in autumn. It has a loosely columnar form and a light canopy that allows a filtered light to pass through. They are anchored using a Platipus Rootball System and backfilled with soil. A perforated sandstone tree-grate protect the roots.


Lighting
The 15m bronze-aluminium alloy lighting masts act as landmarks and light both the church forecourt from low level and the square from high level. The dimmable lamps are gimbal-mounted and can be aimed independently with control gear concealed within the mast. In addition, random uplighting illuminates the trees, while background lighting is provided by existing wall lights re-mounted to the perimeter buildings.


Furniture
Street furniture is grouped in an informal manner beneath the trees, with a smaller grouping located within the church forecourt, allowing for areas of clear, open space. The bronze-aluminium alloy used complements the sandstone surface of the square and responds to the traditional materials found within the historic fabric of the city. Stuart Dickson, project architect, Graeme Massie Architects

Project data


Start on site January 2008
Contract duration 10 months
Gross internal floor area 998m² (Phase 1 area)
Form of contract JCT 2005 with Quantities
Total cost £1.52 million (Phase 1)
Cost per m² £1,523
Client Oxford City Council
Architect Graeme Massie Architects
Civil engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Planning supervisor Buro Happold
Art coordinator Artpoint Trust
Main contractor English Landscapes Ltd
Annual CO2 emissions n/a

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