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David Kohn Architects wins approval for New College Oxford quad

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David Kohn Architects has won planning approval for its £35 million quad for New College Oxford after it trimmed the scheme’s feature tower to meet height limits in Arnold’s ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ 

The plans for the Savile Road campus, near the city’s historic centre, were handed permission earlier this month with Historic England endorsing the scheme as a ‘playful and beautiful group of buildings’. 

The project, which the practice won following a contest three years ago and is its largest to date, involves the demolition of several buildings on the 7,728 m² site, including Warham House and a 1950s extension to the neighbouring boys preparatory, New College School.

The new campus – to be named Gradel Quadrangles – will include 74 student flats distributed across a trio of new quadrangle buildings including a main building to be shared by the university college and the school.

The principal quad will include a 120-seat lecture theatre, an intimate 70-seat music hall designed for broadcast-quality recording facilities and new classrooms and facilities for the school. 

The new Warham House building, which features a distinctive curved tower, will provide further student accommodation and office space.

Originally proposed as a 25m-tall building, the architect cut back the tower’s height after a planning committee raised concerns it contravened Oxford’s city-wide height limit of 18.2m.

The height policy is in place for new buildings within a 1,200 radius of historic Carfax Tower, the remains of the 12th-century St Martin’s Church.

At 21.8m, the revised tower is still over the limit but councillors agreed with Historic England that David Kohn’s project would add a new ‘dreaming spire’ to Oxford’s skyline and should be treated as an exception to the so-called ’Carfax Rule’. 

In a comment included in the planners’ report, the heritage body said: ’The proposed buildings are unusual, quite unlike anything currently in Oxford, but we are convinced that the architectural concept is very good.’

’If the materials used, the detailing and execution of the project are up to the standards currently envisaged this would be an innovative, playful and beautiful group of buildings which would bring joy to all those who experienced them and enhance the architectural riches of the city.’

Miles Young, Warden of New College Oxford, said: ’We are delighted that plans for the Gradel Quadrangles at New College have been given the go-ahead with a ringing endorsement from Historic England.

’They are a very sensitive solution to a very challenging design problem: reconciling exciting and innovative architecture within a very particular Edwardian streetscape.’

In 2015 David Kohn Architects saw off competition from Alison Brooks Architects, Kengo Kuma and Associates, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Gort Scott and Lee/Fitzgerald Architects to land the project.

Architect’s view

Architects have reimagined the quad as a learning community in the 21st century – departing from the quad’s closed origins and seeking a contemporary interpretation that enjoys a fluid and open relationship with the surrounding city and nature.

The campus, situated in a conservation area close to Oxford city centre, is arranged as a trio of three-sided south-facing quadrangles of different forms, book-ended by existing buildings. The East and School quads are large and open, while the central West Quad is horseshoe-shaped to create a more private environment conducive to study. Projecting bays and entrances that reinterpret adjacent Grade II-listed Arts and Crafts buildings are set within curvaceous elevations of diamond-patterned ashlar with undulating tiled roofs that form a striking contrast to traditional Oxford quads. The new 21.8m tower continues the curving form of the other campus buildings to create a constantly shifting silhouette when viewed from the surrounding city.

Student accommodation forms the primary focus of the new campus with a net increase of 74 new en suite student rooms distributed across three new buildings. The principal Main Quad building also contains a cluster of spaces for teaching, learning and performance alongside a flexible area for individual or group study. The Music Hall will be an intimate 70-seat venue, designed to achieve optimal acoustics and offer broadcast quality recording facilities. The new tower – unlike most collegiate towers which are defensive in character and representational in function – will be open in feel, accessible and provide fine views across the city. Alongside these college facilities, a tired 1950s extension to the neighbouring New College School will be demolished to make way for the new building that will provide spacious new classrooms, an assembly hall and dining facilities.

The landscape strategy creates a sequence of gardens linked by a sinusoidal path that range from collegiate in character to the north, to more wooded and arcadian to the south. Inspired by the writings of historian Niklaus Pevsner on picturesque urban planning, the paths pass through narrow gaps between buildings that first frame views and then reveal new garden settings. Here David Kohn Architects have foregrounded the relationship between landscape and architecture, and how long and varied walks are made possible within the relatively constrained scale of the campus.

The New College Oxford campus has provided David Kohn Architects with further opportunities to consider their approach to architecture at a larger scale. For instance earlier projects – such as the Carrer Avinyó apartment in Barcelona – explored ideas of buildings within buildings. At New College, the practice has explored the quad as a city within a city – both a fragment of Oxford and a whole within itself. The long history of Oxford college quads demonstrates how architecture and institutions are in a constant state of flux, and New College’s ambition to be open to the city and nature today led David Kohn Architects to develop ideas around how architecture can embody institutional change, and how the quad form can offer greater permeability and openness without fragmentation.

APPROVED: David Kohn's designs for New College Oxford

APPROVED: David Kohn’s designs for New College Oxford

APPROVED: David Kohn’s designs for New College Oxford

Project data

Client New College Oxford
Architect David Kohn Architects
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Mechanical and electrical engineer Skelly and Couch
Planning consultant Turnberry
Conservation architect Marcus Beale Architects
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Site area 7,728m²
NIA 5,685m²
Competition 2015
Student rooms quantity 100
CAD software used Vectorworks

APPROVED: David Kohn's plans for New College Oxford

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