In August 1996 students at Balliol College, Oxford, moved into Phase 1 of a new hall of residence designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. The masterplan for the Jowett Walk building consists of nine linked pavilions, a strategy which meets the college's demand for accommodation in the short term with provision for future expansion when funding allows. Three of the blocks were built as Phase 1. Two-and-a-half years on, no further phases have been built, leaving the three pavilions at the west end of the site with a curious status whereby they are simultaneously the beginning of an unfinished vision, and a tried-and-tested part of the Oxford townscape and college life.
In terms of massing, mjp's masterplan has many strengths. Unusually for an Oxford college, it is linear as opposed to quadrangular, running along the edge of the college sports field. The resulting wide, open views are positively exhilarating when compared to the claustrophobic inward-looking aspect of the traditional quad, and reflect Balliol's outward-looking ethos. Alternate blocks are set back from the street - a ruse which breaks the mass of the building down to an appropriate scale for the neighbourhood, which is residential rather than collegiate.
With only three blocks built, the openness, and the appropriateness of the scale are already apparent, but other strengths of the scheme are yet to be realised. The courtyard pattern is not established, and there is as yet no sense of the equality of parts which is implicit in the design. If two, four, or several blocks had been built, each would appear to be equal in status, but in a grouping of three, the composition centres round the middle block - the only pavilion to stand right on the street.
For those who are not privy to the masterplan, there is nothing to suggest that the development is incomplete. Visually, there is the mix of solidity and complexity, and the multiple layers of reference which we have come to expect of an mjp building. Fortress-like touches - tower rooms, and parapets inspired by Lutyens' Castle Drogo - contrast with the liberal provision of windows, while the towers are also reminiscent of Oxford's dreaming spires. Even the apparently straightforward chequerboard diagram is not as simple as it seems: in order to follow the curve of Jowett Walk, each block is set at 1degrees off the line of the previous one, resulting in a barely discernible geometric complexity.
The honey-coloured brick (hand-made Williamson-Cliff) recalls the warm local stone which many Oxford buildings, including Balliol, have favoured in the past, but is given a sharp edge by slightly recessed bands of blue- grey engineering bricks, and sharp 45degrees angles incorporated into the design. As Richard MacCormac puts it, 'Although it's made of brick it's not at all folksy.' The sharpness is itself a playful nod to tradition. As part of the original competition brief for the project, Andrew Saint wrote an essay which quoted Lethaby's comment that 'the architecture of Balliol is smart and hard'. MacCormac says that the description influenced the design: 'I think that's how Balliol academics like to think of themselves.' After two-and-a-half years, the brickwork does look 'smart and hard', but also clean and new. The one sign of wear and tear has occurred where hooks for maintenance ladders have been pushed into some of the blue engineering bricks and caused them to chip.
In structural and practical terms, each block functions as a self-sufficient unit. Public spaces are arranged on the ground floor with residential accommodation above, a neat arrangement which, given that the building is four storeys high, reflects the brief's demand that 75 per cent of space should be given over to student rooms. Each of the residential floors has between six and eight study bedrooms and a shared kitchen/ dining room, providing a total of 21 rooms in each block. Public spaces have their own circulation system which spills over into outside space, while residential pavilions on the upper floors are linked to each other by bridges, creating a separate student circulation route: an arrangement which addresses security concerns without being obtrusive.
The impact of the four storeys has been reduced by excavating the site to a stratum of strong load-bearing gravel one metre down, a move which reduced costs by allowing the use of simple strip foundations bearing directly on the gravel. Cavity wall construction is used externally. Internally, load-bearing blockwork walls support in-situ concrete slabs. En-suite shower rooms are factory-made concrete pods, each weighing 1.8 tonnes, which were imported from Denmark and craned into position as each floor was cast. Wooden panels on to corridors allow the pods to be serviced without interrupting students.
The organisational and structural strategies are too clear, and perhaps too good, to encourage much change. Dr Oswyn Murray, who as senior tutor at Balliol organised the architectural competition and assumed the client role, is delighted with the building, as are the students who appreciate the fact that it is secure and comfortable without being either institutional or cosy, but a building designed for a large and ever-changing group of people cannot anticipate all needs, and the three generations of occupants have used the building in ways which were not necessarily planned.
Take the theatre, which is the most prominent of the public rooms, and occupies the ground floor of the westernmost pavilion. Conceived as a revenue-earner as well as a student facility, it is fully equipped for conferences, and Murray also hopes to see it used for less formal community events: 'I'd like to see it used for discos'. In fact, it is most commonly used by students as a theatre and, with its stackable stage and excellent acoustics, it has proved well suited to the purpose. With the benefit of hindsight, Murray wishes that the theatre doors had been designed to fold right back, linking the indoor space to the amphitheatre-like outdoor steps, to allow for indoor/outdoor theatricals - 'I mean, what's the point of having that space if you don't use it?'
The residential blocks on the upper floors were designed to nurture sociability. The central precast-concrete staircases (see Working Detail, pages p40- 41) have windows overlooking the kitchen/dining rooms and there are windows between kitchens and landings. Seats set into the curve of the stairwell provide opportunities for chats on the corridors which student Lyndsey Turner approvingly describes as 'just about spacious enough to hold parties in'. In fact corridors are most commonly used for hair-drying - electricity points in student rooms automatically cut out beyond a certain point - and most socialising goes on in the kitchen. Curiously, nobody seems to miss a common room - possibly because the policy of encouraging joint applications from groups of friends guarantees a sociable atmosphere. Students' only real gripe concerns the theatre doors: 'When they close, the whole building shudders.'
Study-bedrooms, which are generous by hall of residence standards, have dashes of terracotta, creamy-yellow and blue, and come in different shapes and sizes - some have window seats, some are dual-aspect and so on. Most have bay windows which are described by MacCormac as 'a game of trying to give glass volume'. He describes the result as 'quite crystalline, really'. Each room comes complete with a lockable cupboard large enough to hold a computer. Wall rails allow bookshelves and pinboards to be moved around, and the room plans allow furniture to be arranged in different configurations. Furniture itself was ordered from Great Universal Stores, but project architect Jeremy Estop had some design input so that, for example, table legs are chamfered in deference to Balliol's trademark angularity.
Having taken such care over the rooms, the college is understandably loath to let the student's imaginations run riot, and the rules dictate that walls are not to be painted, and curtains and furniture are not to be changed. But students have found ways to personalise their space. Leopardskin cushions leaning against the windows are visible from the street. Two male students who are sharing two rooms and a bathroom originally designed as a warden's flat have lined their shared corridor space with a solid grid of beer cans. Paper fishes have been inserted into a porthole window in one of the doors in the corridor space.
But there are no signs of casual vandalism, either by residents or outsiders. The basic security strategy of raising the residential accommodation above ground seems to have worked. Students report that surprising number of people still clamber around the walls at the back of the building, but stress that this is nothing more menacing than general student high jinks. Murray has instructed the gardener to plant some 'really spiky' roses along the edge of the building as a further deterrent, although he seems concerned with keeping students in as much as keeping intruders out: 'I don't want people traipsing on to the sports field with their cans of beer'. Murray now wishes planting had been used to prevent people who work in the building from parking outside the front gate.
So what of the future? Murray is eager to see at least one more pavilion built, but says he would be surprised if work began soon. University funding is in an uncertain state, and the current economic climate makes it unlikely that the next phase could be built as cheaply as Phase 1. To some extent, economy is built into the design. Standard components are widely used - the striking appearance of the brickwork was achieved with very few specials. For all their complexity, the windows use standard systems, although difficulties occurred when the window subcontractor went into receivership, prompting Benfield & Loxley, the main contractor, to employ directly the subcontractor's ex-labour force. But the low cost was also largely thanks to the very competitive tendering climate in the depths of the recession.
Given that the prolonged delay has given him so much time to consider, would Murray still choose to build the remaining part of the building as originally planned? 'People have suggested taking the kitchens out in order to fit another bedroom in on each floor, but I think the kitchens are important. The bottom layer is up for grabs - we're always having different ideas about what we need, and the design always allowed for changing requirements. I told them to draw a swimming-pool in, just to show it could be done'. But there won't be any fundamental changes. 'I think its been a tremendous success really . . . when I first saw the plan I thought, 'Richard's very clever'. There's no way anybody could play around with that plan, or try to take it over. I wouldn't be happy working with another architect.'