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John Henry Brookes and Abercrombie Building by Design Engine

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Oxford Brookes’ new building offers a refreshing alternative to the elitism of the city’s other university, writes Owen Pritchard. Photography by Nick Kane

The city of Oxford is defined by academia, the closed colleges whose sites once operated beyond the reach of the law. It has somehow created a city that is like catnip to tourists, fascinated by its aloofness. It’s a profoundly unwelcoming city: the sandstone colleges contain their activity for those who have matriculated into the most exclusive of academic institutions, and every lawn and green space is owned by the world-famous university. The city is home to a second university, Oxford Brookes University, a former polytechnic granted its university status in 1992, and its Headington campus, away from the ‘dreaming spires’, has opened a new £83 million campus that sets a new standard for UK university buildings.

The campus is located west of the city centre on the London Road. The existing Darcy building, no longer fit for purpose, was demolished to make way for the John Henry Brookes and Abercrombie building.  The architect, Winchester-based Design Engine, was commissioned to create a new building providing a library, auditorium, student’s union, pooled teaching space and new extension to the Abercrombie Building (home of the university’s school of architecture).

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The architect’s first key decision was to move the existing entrance from Gipsy Lane to London Road. This simple tactic gives the building a presence on one of the main arterial routes into the city. The north-west facade presides over a piazza that rises 2.5m from the roadside to connect with the building at first floor level. It’s an inviting gesture, and everything a traditional Oxford college is not. This formal gateway is a public space, flanked by a three-storey colonnade that will contain cafés, shops and a medical centre - all open to the local community.  It is here that you first encounter ‘The Ribbon’, a continuous thread of untreated Cor-ten steel that snakes through the building, acting as an intuitive way finding technique and providing a few moments of sculptural drama.

Entering the building on the first floor, the forum space is encountered from above.  This central space, some 20m high, provides social and educational functions to create a hive of activity and a critical mass of students where the identity of the university will surely manifest itself. The architect refers to the space as ‘the glowing box’, and the further functions of the building - the union, pooled teaching spaces, library and Abercrombie Building - plug into it from a series of wings that the architect has designated ‘pegs’.

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The vast forum space is arranged to provide a number of functions within a shared void, flanked by a huge glazed wall that faces west and allows the  room to be flooded with light. The ground floor, viewed from the first balcony on entering, is scattered with an arrangement of sofas, workstations and café seating, all served by a deli. When cleared, this space can be used for gatherings of about 1,000 people - perfect for graduations and the like. Above this hangs the 350-seat auditorium, clad in timber fins, a space that can be used for lectures and gatherings of student societies.

From all angles the space is overseen by elements of the library that thrusts into the central void from the second floor, or the study space atop the auditorium.  There is always a view that frames or leads to another centre of activity wherever you stand in the building, giving the whole campus a sense of vitality.

The pegs each have their own identity expressed in material finishes expressed internally and externally.  The Abercrombie Building, finished two years prior to the rest of the building, plugs in to the forum behind the colonnade that flanks the entrance.  The extension doubles the capacity of the existing faculty, providing studio spaces astride a void driven through the centre of the block that are linked with coloured structural glass bridges.  The building flanks the northern edge of the central courtyard that spills from the forum space.

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Externally the architect has added additions to break up the massing, adding magenta fins on the western facade and using timber screens in some of the windows.  The most striking use of glazing (47 per cent of the building is glazed) is in the library, where, due to concerns about privacy regarding the surrounding residential buildings, the glazing has been raked into a sawtooth arrangement and the views obscured by 20m tall glass fins, acid etched with an abstract pattern.

The central axis through the forum leads to the students union. Here, buried in the plinth of the building is a bar and series of performance spaces painted a fairly oppressive yellow.  There are also quieter offices and support spaces for the pastoral elements of the union, consultation rooms and support spaces. Above this sit the pooled teaching spaces. There are three storeys of fairly nondescript but generously sized lecture rooms that are not assigned to any particular faculty.

Beyond the students union area, the building terminates at the refectory, an unexpected but charming conclusion to the progression through the building. The refectory is a glazed box that faces away from the rest of the building, overlooking playing fields. The deep roof has a sculptural lighting system that creates some much-needed, but restrained, drama, and the Ribbon reaches its conclusion with a couple of final flourishes - kicking up to the roof to wrap the chimney and creating a deep solar shade facing east, with an organic pattern carved into the Cor-ten.

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Fundamentally, this building is a collection of precast and in situ concrete boxes, pushed, pulled and juggled into place by a practice which understands that the individual functions need to provide a coherent, performative whole.  There is boldness about the use of materials; concrete is left fair-faced to create monumental walls, streaked with light from deep roof lights where appropriate. Timber finishes and screens are used when a softer or more porous surface are needed; glass balustrades flank the many balconies, allowing light to penetrate everywhere. Although materially rich, the scale of the forum space in particular means that the appearance is never schizophrenic or agitated. Glass, timber, concrete and acoustic panelling are used in abundance and the effect is never overbearing. The building has achieved a Breeam Excellent rating by taking specification guidance from the BRE Green Guide and utilising the thermal mass of the concrete, incorporating green and brown roofs, around 600m² of  PV array, a combined heating and cooling plant and a sustainable urban drainage system.

There is a hang-up in the UK about university buildings, even in the way that we talk about the ‘redbrick’ Russell Group Universities, which frequently occupy didactic, inefficient buildings that are rarely fit for purpose. Design Engine has provided here a very public, very robust building in the second phase of this transformation of the Headington campus, a building that, by placing the students at the heart of the activity, will allow them to form a collective identity. The John Henry Brookes and Abercrombie Building is, quite appropriately, everything the dusty colleges back in the city are not, a thoroughly modern campus for a thoroughly modern, and ambitious, institution.

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