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Oxford draws fire over oligarch's funding of Herzog & de Meuron building

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Russian dissidents and academics have criticised Oxford University for accepting a £75 million donation from an oligarch to pay for a new school of government designed by Herzog & de Meuron

Russian-born Leonid Blavatnik, who is reputed to be Britain’s richest resident, made the donation in 2010, and it has been used to fund the Blavatnik School of Government, which is due to move into its new permanent home in Oxford later this year.

Previously priced at £30 million, Herzog & de Meuron’s ‘stacked’ semicircular scheme features an open forum, with teaching spaces around it, two horseshoe-shaped lecture theatres and a large flexible teaching space. As well as extensive exterior glazing, there are also glass dividing walls and sky-lit mini-courtyards designed to maximise natural light. The school is located in the university’s Rafael Viñoly-masterplanned Radcliffe Observatory Quarter

But this week the university has been accused of failing to properly vet the ethical business credentials of Blavatnik and fellow oligarchs who are members of a Russian consortium known as Access-Alfa-Renova (AAR).

A letter to the Guardian, signed by 21 academics accused Blavatnik and AAR of involvement with state-sponsored harassment of foreign business in Russia, and called on the university to do more to safeguard its reputation.

The letter makes direct allegations of harassment in relation to oil company BP and said a campaign that forced dozens of British and other western managers out of Russia in 2008-9 had involved fabricated cases made against Oxford graduates.

‘We insist that the university should stop selling its reputation and prestige to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s associates,’ its signatories wrote.

‘It should carry out a new and independent due-diligence investigation with clearly defined ethical norms. Until then, politicians and other prominent public figures who endorsed the BSG or the joint awards with Alfa should withdraw their suppor

‘We demand a vigorous public debate that involves students, alumni, tutors, non-governmental organisations, political dissidents and industry experts.

‘We believe it is high time for transparency and procedural reforms at Oxford with regard to foreign donations and awards in order to ensure that in the future their acceptance will be beneficial to the university over the longer term.’

A statement from the university defended its vetting processes and insisted that ‘generous philanthropic donations’ helped it to maintain its world-leader status in research.

‘Oxford University has a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving,’ it said. ‘The Committee to Review Donations conducts appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. The university is confident in this process and in its outcomes.’

Herzog & de Meuron said it would not comment on ‘matters of Oxford University’ but added that the function the building had been designed for was fundamentally sound.

In a statement to AJ it said: ‘We understand the purpose of the Blavatnik School of Government as a place where people from all over the world come together to exchange and engage in political and public-service activities to meet with the global challenges of the future.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Side-stepping the political debate (and surely it is a bit late to refuse the money after 5 years when the building is almost complete) - I am enjoying seeing some interior site photos of this big new building in Oxford by world class architects.

    As a local resident, I have been watching the construction progress as I cycle past on my way home from the station and had been worried about the final design. Initially I had applauded both the University, for selecting such great architects for Oxford, and the City Council, for approving the plans. The form looked exciting and I was looking forward to seeing the shiny surfaces reflecting the classical stonework of Freuds and the Oxford University Press.

    But I started to worry when I saw the building take shape on Walton street. In particular I was disturbed by the almost post-modern expression of the bull-nosed sand stone architrave being erected. To me the choice of materials and detail of the architrave suggested the worst compromise of excellent design being watered down to please the local politicians and traditional conservative neighbours. I began to wonder if a truly great piece of modern architecture could ever be built in a historic city like Oxford.

    I am still not sure of the final outcome but these new photos bring hope that all is not lost. From a distance, and with the second skin of glass in place, the architraves are less dominant and look in proportion. And the interior shots reveal the spatial complexity and quality of light that I was longing to see.

    Hope that the building will be open to the public when it is completed. And look forward to the AJ Building study!

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