Tom Wilkinson discusses ethical questions surrounding Herzog & de Meuron’s Stirling Prize-shortlisted Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford
Does it matter that questions have been asked regarding the money which funded the Blavatnik School of Government? Many of the world’s great buildings rest, after all, on foundations of funny money, if not blood money, slavery and human misery. It is often impossible to tease apart the tangled strands of ethics, aesthetics and function, but here the conjunction of these factors invites closer scrutiny.
The school’s donor and namesake Leonard Blavatnik is one of Britain’s richest men, his £12 billion fortune established by acquiring state utilities from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. In 2010 he became one of the University of Oxford’s most generous benefactors, with a gift of £75 million aimed at establishing a centre for the promotion of ‘A vision of better government. A world better led. A world better served. A world better governed’, as the school’s website puts it.
Questions about the origins of donations are nothing new to Oxford. Wafic Saïd, implicated in the controversial Al-Yamamah arms deal, paid for the drab Pomo business school completed on the city’s western fringe in 2001, and in the same year OxyContin billionaire Mortimer Sackler opened his eponymous art history library. Looking further back, Cecil Rhodes contributed lavishly to Oriel College, where his effigy still stands, and the Hawksmoor-designed Codrington Library was built with plantation money.
What is new, however, is the obtrusiveness of Blavatnik’s gift horse, which is so glaring that it is difficult not to look it in the mouth. Jericho – the area bordering the Blavatnik School – is largely comprised of small artisans’ houses, grown hideously expensive since its gentrification in the 1980s. The building’s immediate context is larger in scale: it is one of the first completed components of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, a 10-acre site earmarked for redevelopment by the university after it was vacated by the NHS. Rafael Viñoly and Hawkins\Brown have recently finished two substantial, albeit much quieter, buildings on the site.
There are also several historic monuments within the quarter, such as the original hospital building and an observatory, both of the 18th century, and neighbouring the school is a Greek revival church from the 1830s that was converted into a cocktail bar in the area’s first flush of gentrification. Across the road is the long Neoclassical range of the University Press, built at the same time as the church, and a little further along is a strikingly modern accommodation block built by Arup in 1967, its projecting glass bays peeping over a wall like a concrete Argus.
Oxford is by no means trapped in an architectural time warp
While there was predictable Nimbyism regarding Herzog & de Meuron’s addition to this ensemble, Oxford is by no means trapped in an architectural time warp. As the Arup building demonstrates, many of the colleges have turned to progressive architects for bold statements advertising their power, wealth and modernity. But there is something peculiarly loud about the Blavatnik; while earlier Modernist works here echoed the Oxford idiom of Cotswold stone and classical proportions, this is an attention-grabbing pile of glazed volumes, its wonkily stacked drums teetering like a wedding cake baked by a drunk.
Given that this unwonted yelling from Herzog & de Meuron was clearly elicited by the building’s patronage – donors expect a little publicity for their money, as any Medici would have told you – the architects’ justifications for their design decisions inspire various degrees of scepticism. Firstly, their controversial choice of silhouette, tall and irregular, rather than low and rectilinear. It was argued that this would grant pedestrians more room to manoeuvre at ground level and permit views from the street into the quarter, and indeed the building is less of a pavement-gobbling monolith than it could have been.
To build a rotunda in Oxford inevitably invites comparison to the Radcliffe Camera. This is a little invidious in this instance, since Gibbs had the ideal square site for his drum, whereas Herzog & de Meuron’s building faces a road. But the choice is not as perverse as Robert Adam’s design for the Sackler Library, a classical rotunda crammed between extant buildings and some new ones made to look like recent accretions. The inside of the Blavatnik is more impressive still, with a towering central atrium that is smaller but by no means meaner than the Radcliffe Camera’s domed interior. As in the Sackler, there is some awkwardness caused by fitting useful spaces into a circular plan, but here at least the core of the building makes sense as a zone of circulation open to light – rather than stuffed by bookstacks around which desks are crammed and visitors must sidle, as in Adam’s library.
When it comes to the choice of material, however, the claims of the architects ring more hollow, and this is where we return to the question of the building’s funding. Blavatnik’s endowment of a school of government is ironic, given he has been accused by critics, among them academics, opponents of Putin and former Soviet dissidents, of supporting the Kremlin in a campaign of state-sponsored harassment of BP, from whose discomfort Blavatnik might be expected to gain. This Blavatnik denies, and one does wonder what motivates this group of knights-errant rushing to the defense of so questionable a maiden as BP. Even so, it seems piquant that Herzog & de Meuron should explain the predominance of glass in the building’s design in the following terms: ‘The architects were struck by the mission and function of the school of government. It will be a place of learning and debate, where the values of openness and transparency will be prized. The glass design showcases the activity within the building and underscores the School’s desire to be open to the community.’
The transparency of glass has been a metaphor for political openness at least since Walter Benjamin asserted that ‘it is a revolutionary virtue par excellence to dwell in a glass house’. This slogan has been adopted by architects such as Norman Foster, whose Reichstag dome allows visitors to scrutinise the balding heads of German politicians (but not their contents). In fact glass has become a shield, and in the Blavatnik School the transparency of this stratagem’s obscurantism attains an unusual degree of clarity. I doubt very much, however, that this will be its graveyard.