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RIBA launches competition for Somerville College dining hall, Oxford

Dining hall 17th january 2020 image 3

Oxford’s Somerville College is holding a contest to overhaul its Grade II-listed dining hall

The RIBA-launched contest will select a multidisciplinary design team to upgrade the acoustic, lighting and ventilation systems within the Edmund Fisher-designed 1913 complex.

The £400,000 project aims to transform the historic room which suffers from ‘oppressive acoustics, crude lighting and inadequate ventilation’. Five shortlisted teams will each receive £6,000 to participate in the contest’s design phase.

Somerville was founded in 1879 to provide women-only higher education but has admitted men for more than 30 years. Recently completed projects include a new £8.5 million accommodation block by Níall McLaughlin Architects.

College principal Janet Royall said: ‘When our hall was opened in 1913, there were only 120 brilliant young women studying here. The magnificent proportions of the building were a testament to our ambition to take our place amongst the great – and male-only – colleges of Oxford. Today, that ambition has been realised.

‘Somerville is home to a diverse community of around 630 students, joined by academics and support staff, for whom this space remains an integral, daily part of college life. This brings with it new challenges. We are looking for an imaginative proposal that will help us to meet the needs of the 21st century; enhancing the hall’s dignity and beauty while creating a space which can be used and enjoyed by all.’

Somerville is a constituent college of the University of Oxford and located in the north of the city close to the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, which features new buildings by Hawkins\Brown, Herzog & de Meuron and Rafael Vinoly Architects.

Former Somerville students include Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Iris Murdoch, and Vera Brittain. The campus includes several iconic Modernist structures by Arup Associates including the Grade II-listed Wolfson Building accommodation block.

The latest project will upgrade the 21m x 11m Edwardian Baroque dining hall, which needs an upgrade due to lighting, ventilation and acoustic constraints. Problems include overheating and difficulty hearing conversations. The competition seeks a solution which ‘will allow visitors to fully appreciate the hall’s architecture and history’.

Interested teams must submit an expression of interest featuring no more than 19 A4 pages. Five shortlisted teams will be invited to draw up concepts in April and submit their proposals by early June. An overall winner will be announced in July.

The evaluation panel will include Níall McLaughlin of Niall McLaughlin Architects; Michael Whitcroft, acoustician at Hoare Lea; the college’s treasurer and domestic bursar Andrew Parker; and Richard Todd, partner at Bidwells.

The deadline for applications is 2pm on 16 March. 

How to apply

Visit the competition website for more information

Contact details

RIBA Competitions
No 1 Aire Street

Tel: 0113 203 1490
Email: riba.competitions@riba.org 



Andrew Parker – fellow, treasurer and domestic bursar at Somerville College

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker

Why are your holding a competition to upgrade the acoustics, lighting and ventilation in the Somerville College dining hall?

We have been concerned about the oppressive acoustics for some time. The idea to launch an RIBA came from friends, Vincent and Maja Wang, both architects, who were experiencing the acoustics for themselves at a formal college dinner. An earlier study had established that the solution would require sound absorbent material being suspended from the ceiling and the competition seemed to us like a good way to invite innovative and imaginative solutions. It made sense to address the lighting and ventilation issues at the same time.

What is your vision for the new dining hall?

The dining hall is a much-loved, elegant space at the centre of the college but its acoustics are harsh and the lighting inflexible and inadequate. We are seeking to enhance the dining hall so that it becomes a flexible, responsive and interesting space capable of lending itself to the many and varied functions that take place there (student meals, formal dinners, receptions, talks etc.) Innovation, imagination and quality will be very important in the winning design, together with cost. It goes without saying the solution must address the acoustic issue.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

We do not have any preconceptions about this. We are simply looking for an innovative and effective solution. This is quite a small project, but working with a prestigious client.

Are there any other recent dining hall upgrade projects you have been impressed by?

The refurbishment of dining hall at St Peter’s College Oxford is a good example of what can be achieved, though their acoustic solution, which was to fit acoustic board around the barrel ceiling, will not work at Somerville because our dining hall is considerably larger.


Readers' comments (2)

  • It’s not a competition it’s an EOI which means that it’s essentially restricted to practices with previous experience

    It’s very telling that if you inspect the RIBA competition site nearly every so called competition was invited only so it’s a bit of a joke for the RIBA to be campaigning for architecture to more broadly represent the population it serves whilst restricting opportunities

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  • That’s why there are so many younger/smaller practices chasing smaller commission in effect working for little or no return with little real prospect of growth

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