Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

  • Comment

This ambitious building never attempts to copy the city’s historic architecture, but squares up against its more traditional neighbours on its own terms

BRIEF • CLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • PROJECT TIMELINE 

Herzog & de Meuron has added its name to the glittering roll call of architects to have built in the university city of Oxford. In recent years many have attempted to add to its historic architecture, from Rafael Viñoly to Zaha Hadid. And here, as you walk from the train station, having passed Dixon Jones’ now well-embedded Said Business School, beside Níall McLaughlin’s Somerville College in the middle of an unfinished masterplan sits the Swiss practice’s Blavatnik School of Government.

It was never designed to copy Oxford’s historic architecture. ‘In a city as richly historic as this, there is a temptation to copy, which is not only difficult but dangerous too,’ says senior partner Jacques Herzog.

According to Herzog, the building’s competing geometries and cantilevered forms were designed to break down the scheme’s mass and respond to its context.

‘The building is not one single volume that responds to this internal courtyard but it is a stack of different forms. Since it is a stack it is cantilevering, it is narrower, it is wider’, he says. ‘The change of volumes introduces a sense of scale and proportion, which we hope works well with the historic context.’

But unlike other Oxford college buildings and despite the reference to it, there is no courtyard. In its place is an internal central foyer space, which rises up and flows like a ribbon unfurling through the building’s five storeys. This is where the references to government buildings comes into play. The students at the Blavatnik come from all over the world and are expected to become our next politicians, prime ministers, and policy makers. In this building, says the school’s dean Ngaire Woods, they wanted to create a space to ‘inspire and support better public policy and government in every part of the world’. It’s an ambitious and hopeful plan.

It is in this central forum space that they hope to start. Guided by the circular spaces so common in historic parliaments, the space has been designed to provide chance encounters and be a place of togetherness. Its pure scale certainly impresses. ‘The round form is like sitting around a fireplace,’ says Herzog. ‘It is an obvious archaic form.’

It is its high-quality finishes and the well-articulated detailing that really make the Blavatnik

But overlooked by the glass offices that surround it on the upper floors there is something about the space that, despite its high-quality finish and natural daylight, still feels lifeless. Woods, however, insists it is a bustling, busy space, with the central forum space already hosting a number or parties and events.

‘If a building looks better when it is full of people then it is a good building,’ says Herzog. ‘When it looks crowded and doesn’t feel right, then it is less good.’ But it is hard to imagine that the school could ever fill this huge building. Launched in 2010 with the help of a £75 million donation from Ukranian-born oligarch Len Blavatnik, the school now has just 130 students, and when I visit it feels empty – there are no lectures in either of the two lecture halls, and most of the offices and study rooms upstairs stand unused.  

With its security gates at the entrance, the building is closed to the public, and it feels a shame that just the students and staff will get to experience the place, which has the qualities of a well-designed public building. It is its high-quality finishes and the well-articulated detailing that really make the Blavatnik. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Herzog & de Meuron.

The scheme’s spiral staircase is expertly detailed. Constructed on site but not in situ, it was craned in and lowered through a central circular hole. The lines of the shuttering are consistent, giving the impression it was cast in place but this approach allowed the architect to control the stair’s geometry and its architectural finish. These fine stairs with their tactile quality mean that people use them rather than the lifts.

The practice built full-scale mock-ups of all the building’s concrete surfaces. Senior partner Ascan Mergenthaler tells me that pushing hard during this mock-up process ensured the quality of the concrete in the building with minimal snagging. It certainly paid off. The concrete really makes this scheme.

With its glass panels and oak detailing, the building squares up against its more traditional neighbours

Another flourish of the building, aptly named the ‘window to the world’, is what the contractor boasts is ‘the largest double-glazed window in Europe’. It faces out on to the Oxford University Press building as if glancing at this historical building and hoping it can remain like that and seem as bedded into the city in another 100 years’ time.

In this historical context a modern glass building could have failed. But with its glass panels with their width taken from the stone facade of the nearby Bodleian Library and its oak detailing, which Woods described as ‘so Oxford’, the building squares up against its more traditional neighbours.

It is that which will be the real test of this building. Will it really be able to hold its own as the site around it develops – as have those historic greats such as the University Press building and James Gibbs’ Radcliffe Observatory? Seven plots around the site are set to be allocated in the next 10 years, but until then the Blavatnik will be surrounded by temporary landscaping. It’s not yet finished, which leaves the building feeling incomplete.

For the practice – and for the architectural world outside Oxford – it feels like a prelude to Herzog & de Meuron’s upcoming Tate Modern extension. That is what we are really all waiting for. But in the meantime, this will do. Oxford has got itself a good building.

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Brief

The building, which provides spaces for teaching, research and collaboration, was designed to be open and engaging. The building’s forum provides a light-filled space linking the school’s surrounding study and lecture areas. It also acts as a venue for public exhibitions, formal receptions, and impromptu discussions among students, faculty staff and visitors. 

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Client’s view

Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government

From the very beginning, we worked with the architect to ensure that our new home reflected our values. The building is designed to foster collaboration and interaction among students, faculty and guests. Research, teaching and engagement are made easier by the light, collaborative spaces, which both inspire and enable conversations and connections. It is a welcoming home to students, academics and policy-makers from across the world who share our desire to improve government.

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Project data

Start on site September 2013
Completion November 2015
Gross internal floor area 9,000m²
Site area 1,885m²
Form of contract Design and Build
Architect Herzog & de Meuron
Client University of Oxford
Structural engineer Pell Frischmann
M&E consultant Hoare Lea
Landscape architect Townshend Landscape Architects
Quantity surveyor EC Harris
Sustainability consultant Aecom
Facade consultant Murphy Facade Studio
Planning consultant Montagu Evans
Project manager Oxford University Estates Services and Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor Laing O’Rourke

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Project timeline

March 2011 Concept design
January 2012 Schematic design
May 2012 Outline design submission
June 2012 Outline design approved
June 2012 Design development
September 2012  Scheme design submission
September 2012 Construction document production
January 2013 Planning application submitted
May 2013 Planning granted
September 2013 Construction started
January 2015 Topping out
September 2015  Construction completed
November 2015 Building opened

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

 Watch a video interview in the building with Jaques Herzog

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.