James Stirling’s friend and former colleague Thomas Muirhead has called for an end to ‘insensitive, uncouth and violent’ plans to regenerate the Florey Building in Oxford
Avanti Architects’ recently unveiled designs for the Grade II-listed student residences have been labelled ‘myopic’ by Muirhead for proposing to demolish the building’s carefully crafted river approach.
Muirhead argued the 1971 U-shaped structure for Queen’s College was Stirling’s most ‘contextual’ project and marked a turning point in his career, featuring an attention to circulation which was characteristic of the late architect’s work.
Describing the northern approach threatened with demolition, Muirhead said: ‘The river is accessed by a system of ramps leading down to a miniature, curving [Alvar] Aalto-esque dock where Oxford punts were intended to arrive. The ramp was designed to give pace to the way people arrive – making them face first one way and then the other while only gradually rising to the upper level before discovering the wonderful view.’
‘I find it quite insensitive, indeed uncouth and violent, that the new proposals envisage destroying it by demolishing the ramp and inserting new steps instead.’
Continuing his criticism, he added: ‘Moreover, since Stirling included existing trees as part of his contextual landscaping design, the proposal to insert new and completely unnecessary trees in the courtyard only compounds the damage which was done when the hard-paved courtyard was foolishly greened over some years ago.’
In conclusion Muirhead said: ‘The published changes alone – which, one fears, may be only a small part of much more far-reaching alterations – seem to indicate a particularly myopic form of architectural small-mindedness and an inability to understand what Stirling’s intentions were for this building.’
He added: ‘Unless this project is stopped we shall lose one of the very greatest British works of architecture of the 20th century and it will no longer be worth visiting.’
In response, Paul Madden, the provost at Queen’s College, said: ‘[We] have has taken special care to investigate the building through various studies, including a conservation statement prepared by Alan Berman, and an international search for architects capable of addressing the specific sensitivities of this building.
‘As a result of all of this, the Avanti team has only just been appointed and no designs have been approved. Discussions with various bodies about the potential for upgrade will now be commenced.’
He added: ‘The college remains absolutely committed to the recognition of this important building as it has made clear from the outset of this process.’
Avanti beat Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Hawkins\Brown, John McAslan + Partners, Levitt Bernstein Associates and Nicholas Hare Architects to win the contest, organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants, last month.