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Wright & Wright deftly weaves old and new at Magdalen College's library

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Transformation underscores Wright & Wright’s new library at Magdalen College, says Catherine Slessor 

PLANS • DETAIL • SPECIFICATION • PROJECT DATA

In the long history of Oxford’s Magdalen College, one of its more colourful footnotes involved a minor feud between the socialist historian AJP Taylor and CS Lewis, the writer and Christian apologist. Taylor was in the habit of suggesting to Lewis that a more productive use for Magdalen’s charming 15th-century chapel would be to convert it into a public swimming pool. Perhaps he had in mind the Soviet appropriation of the Lutheran Church in St Petersburg, which was obliged to accommodate a pool (complete with diving platform in the apse) during the Communist era. It was eventually reclaimed by the Lutherans.

The idea of transformation, albeit not as radical as chapels to pools, underscores Wright & Wright’s new Longwall Library for Magdalen. The Buckler Building, a Victorian school which was itself transformed in the early 1930s by Giles Gilbert Scott to accommodate the college’s original library, has been gutted and remodelled, and a new wing added, containing staff offices and a reading room. Previously, there were just 48 study places for Magdalen’s 600 students; now there are 120 in various settings, from an intimate attic floor tucked under the ornate Victorian roof structure to rows of window seats in the new reading room overlooking Longwall Quad.

Typical of Oxford colleges, Magdalen evolved slowly and incrementally around a series of monastic quadrangles, giving rise to that distinctively introverted kind of urbanism that characterises certain university towns. Glimpses of emerald lawns through watchful portals perpetuate a sense of hermetic groves of academe discreetly disengaged from messy reality. Within an intensely competitive college hierarchy, Magdalen, founded in 1458, is known as a heavy hitter, with historic roots, deep reserves and a reputation for academic prowess. Its alumni include Oscar Wilde, Erwin Schrödinger and George Osborne.

Adding to Magdalen’s centuries-old conglomeration of buildings presented the familiar programmatic paradox of impinging as lightly as possible on the existing site and structures while simultaneously reorganising and remodelling them. A key prohibition stipulated that any new building could not exceed the height of the existing boundary wall on the street edge of Longwall Quad. In many ways, the site was a tabula conferta (as opposed to a tabula rasa), resonant with incident and history. Archaeological excavation of the quad prior to construction work bore eloquent witness to its past lives. Intact wine bottles, over 100 human skeletons from a 12th-century cemetery and 3,000 clay wig curlers were just some of the discoveries.

The new building is both an end in itself and a component in a larger formal and spatial sequence

Catherine Slessor

With site parameters dictated by the listed Victorian library and the sacrosanct quad, Wright & Wright’s response was to rethink the way external space was used. Effectively, the quad, the essential building block of college typology, has been transformed into an outdoor room. The emerald lawn is still there, but is now augmented by a sunken courtyard with planted beds and low stone walls for sitting, studying and socialising, animating what was previously inert terrain. Tactfully subverting the quad’s orthogonal geometry, the courtyard slopes down on a diagonal axis to the library’s main entrance. Thus the new building is both an end in itself and a component in a larger formal and spatial sequence that activates new ways of experiencing the college.

Clad in honey-coloured Clipsham stone, the low-slung form of the new wing stealthily wraps around the base of the Buckler Building, forming a plinth-like structure. The new reading room runs parallel with the street boundary wall to delineate the fourth side of the quad. With deep window reveals and properly bedded stone, as opposed to the ubiquitous clip-on variety, there is a satisfying tectonic heft to the new architecture, echoing its historic forbears. The flat roof of the new wing becomes a fifth elevation when seen from the upper floors of the Buckler Building, its lead-clad rooflights arrayed like metal caskets or abstract chess pieces.

The entrance hall acts as a pivot uniting new and existing elements. On one side the luminous, top-lit volume of the new reading room with its views over the quad; on the other, a staircase leading up to the remodelled Buckler Building. Stripped back to its shell, the Victorian stone box now contains three new floors of bookcases and study desks. Like superscale furniture, the new parts are conceived as a freestanding installation which does not impinge on the existing structure.

Our insertions pull back from the walls so you still get a sense of the original space

Clare Wright

‘Gilbert Scott had already radically altered what was essentially a single-volume school room by adding an intermediate floor which clumsily cut across the windows,’ says partner Clare Wright. ‘Our insertions pull well back from the walls so you can still get a sense of the original space.’

This tactic maximises the available volume and creates an atmospheric warren of nooks and crannies in which scholars can secret themselves. Imagine multiple, modern versions of St Jerome in his study. ‘People like to study in different ways,’ says Wright, ‘so we provided different seating configurations. Some in groups, some individual, some with an aspect, some more secluded.’

Each of the three floors is arranged on a different axis, propagating experiential variety. Study spaces are embedded in the bookshelves, yet in such a way that those studying are not disturbed by those looking for books. The scale and intimacy of these arrangements choreographs changing plays of views and unexpected perspectives, of old stone walls washed by sunlight, or darkly brooding roof trusses and stained glass windows at upper level. Echoing the heft of the exterior, internal fittings are attentively considered and executed. Each study desk is a seamless microcosm of oak joinery and blue leather, illuminated by specially designed task lights.

As with all Wright & Wright’s work, there is a thoughtful rigour both to the conception of new elements and the reconception of old ones. In part this stems from an astute grasp of the potential of historic buildings and how they can be brought back to life. But it is also underscored by technical skill and sensitivity, making complex things look effortless. The reconstituted stair tower threading through the old library, for instance, is a tour de force of compaction and intricacy, exulting in the minutiae of precise detailing in confined space, like a ship in a bottle or a Fabergé egg.

Ultimately, Magdalen’s new library exemplifies a combination of toughness, delicacy and a legibility that does not equivocate between the historical and the contemporary, treating both as different but equal in an evolving narrative. Existing elements and conditions are a jumping-off point for reciprocity and transformation, the new emerging out of the old to generate unexpected synergies and breathe life into assemblages created over time.

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Plans

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Detailed roof section 

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Specification

Pitched roof tiles
Cotswold Stone Quarries 

Copings to extension and landscape
Clipsham Quarry Company 

Ashlar to new extension
Clipsham Quarry Company 

Thermal insulation to pitched roof
Web Dynamics

Acoustic quilt
Siderise 

Ivory wall render to interior
K-rend 

Aluminium framed roof windows to existing pitched roof
Schüco

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Magdalen College Library by Wright & Wright

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Project data

Start on site June 2014
Completion July 2016
Form of contract JCT Traditional Contract with Contractor’s Designed Portion
Construction cost £5.4 million
Architect Wright & Wright
Client Magdalen College, Oxford
Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates
M&E consultant Max Fordham
QS Gardiner & Theobald
CDM coordinator Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor Stepnell
CAD software used AutoCAD
Annual CO2 emissions 18.8kg/m2

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