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Foster's Oxford Magnet scheme comes unstuck

Foster + Partners’ £38million The Magnet scheme in Oxford has suffered another blow with news that it is to be scaled back for a second time

The competition-winning science education and visitor centre for technology charity Science Oxford was to include a world class planetarium, a ‘discovery centre’ and space for new tech-based businesses.

The practice landed the job in November 2010 but, from the outset, faced stiff opposition from heritage groups worried about how the building would impact on the city’s historical Castle Mound which lies immediately behind the proposed site (see pictures).

In April this year Science Oxford submitted to planning an altered scheme which was 2m lower and which had gaps in the façade allowing views of the mound (see below).  But late last month a second round of alterations has resulted in the slashing back of the planetarium element of the design.

Instead of being a beacon for the attraction the Oxford Mail reported it is now to be housed partially underground.

Science Oxford’s Steve Burgess told the paper that burying the planetarium in the basement would mean the loss of a ‘wow factor’. He added: ‘Things have changed a great deal. This is not tinkering; the designs have been modified substantially. The revised plans have rectified the Castle Mound issue.’

This isn’t tinkering; the designs have been modified substantially

As well as issues surrounding the mound, the scheme also requires the demolition of a 100-year old registry office. With the backing of English Heritage the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society (OAHS) had tried and failed to get the building listed.

While Science Oxford won the listing battle, the OAHS remains vocal in its opposition; its secretary Peter Howell told the paper that even with the concessions that ‘the scheme remains unacceptable’.

“If this science centre needs to be built, it must be on a different site,’ he said.  

David Brock, Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas for English Heritage in the South East said: ‘English Heritage has been given sight of the new scheme for the Magnet. It is a completely new design and in some respects is clearly moving the right way - but we have not yet had the opportunity to study it in detail and still have significant concerns about the impact on the conservation area and the heritage assets in the immediate area’ .

‘The building had been due to open in 2016 but Burgess said: “It could slip back. Let’s see what happens with the planning.’

At the time of writing Fosters + Partners was not available for comment.

Previous story (AJ 25.04.13)

Foster submits plans for Science Oxford museum

Foster + Partners has submitted its £38 million contest-winning Science Oxford scheme for planning – two and half years after landing the high-profile museum job

Dubbed ‘The Magnet’, the triangle-shaped building features a planetarium at its core alongside a discovery centre capable of handling 150,000 visitors each year.

An Innovation Centre, also proposed for the 0.2 hectare scheme, will accommodate 50 local high-tech companies.

Foster + Partners beat Edward Cullinan Architects, BDP, Dixon Jones, Hawkins\Brown and locally based Berman Guedes Stretton to land the job for the technology charity Science Oxford in November 2010.

The scheme – which replaces the 1969 Oxford County Architect-designed Macclesfield House municipal offices – was originally expected to be submitted for planning in July 2011.

Commenting on the long wait, Science Oxford chief executive Ian Griffin said: ‘The process was not driven by commercial pressures and we’ve done it at a pace that was right for us.’

He added that the delay was partly down to the unique nature of Oxford and the ‘brilliant and also complicated’ site which borders the Grade I-listed remains of Oxford Castle motte, built in the 11th century.

The project is expected to start next year and to open in summer 2015, if consented.

Foster + Partners' Science Oxford scheme – dubbed 'The Magnet'

Foster + Partners’ Science Oxford scheme – dubbed ‘The Magnet’

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