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50 years on, Oxford is giving progressive architecture another go

Ellis Woodman
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After James Stirling’s Florey Building sent the university cowering into architectural conservatism, the Blavatnik suggests a more optimistic agenda, says Ellis Woodman

In the Stirling Prize’s 20-year history, Herzog & de Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government is the first building commissioned by either the University of Oxford, or any of its 38 colleges, to be shortlisted. Given the quantity of new building that our premier university undertakes, the financial resources at its disposal and its function as a crucible for progressive thought, it might be considered surprising that its record of patronage is not more distinguished. What cause could be identified? Awkwardly, a great many in the city would blame the very architect after whom the Stirling Prize is named.

James Stirling’s Florey Building is widely thought to have killed off modern architecture in Oxford. Commissioned in 1966 by Howard Florey, the then provost of the Queens’ College, Stirling’s glass and red-tiled residential block was conceived as an emphatic departure from the traditional Oxford quad. It is raised on raked, concrete piloti, its bedrooms wrapped into a pseudo-amphitheatre, fully glazed on one side and bearing a striking resemblance to the backside of a football stadium on the other. 

’It is not a place to encourage a man to get out of bed in the morning’

Unsurprisingly, not all the provost’s colleagues were equally enthused and when Florey died mid-way through construction, his architect found himself in the position of completing the project for a client body that was fundamentally opposed to the design. A campaign of interference and cost-cutting ensued: tea-making areas intended to animate the corridors were never installed, paving in the central courtyard was exchanged for grass, and the architect’s characteristically virulent colour scheme was abandoned in favour of magnolia.

The college’s antipathy was only fuelled by a catalogue of technical deficiencies that included poor thermal performance, tiles falling off and inadequate acoustic separation between rooms. Legal action followed but many of the technical problems remained, and a generation of Oxford bursars determined never to find themselves in a similar bind. In his Guide to Oxford, published just a decade after the building’s 1971 completion, Peter Heyworth ends a damning assessment by noting ‘it has an unloved air about it and it is not a place to encourage a man to get out of bed in the morning’.

The failure to realise the intended access from a public route running along the Florey’s river frontage has always made this a particularly difficult building to visit. Entry is by way of the car park at the rear and, despite a number of efforts over the years at charming the Cerberean porter, I had never made it past the security gate. So when the Queen’s College contacted me last year to ask whether the Architecture Foundation would be interested in organising an event in the building, I didn’t take any persuading. 

Florey james stirling oxford 1

Florey james stirling oxford 1

The residential masterclass we have just staged there provided 60 architects from across the world with the opportunity to stay at the Florey prior to a not-uncontroversial £19 million refurbishment. It wasn’t hard to see where a large part of that money might go; in its present condition, the Florey plays as a veritable tragicomedy of thwarted ambition. But at the end of five days many of us left convinced that this much maligned building ranked among its architect’s most singular achievements. It is tempting to see it as the architectural equivalent of The Magnificent Ambersons – Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane – which was hated by the studio that had paid for it, re-edited and effectively buried. 

Many of us left convinced that this much maligned building ranked among its architect’s most singular achievements

Certainly, there has been nothing as remotely exciting as the Florey built in Oxford in the interim. For many years, the offices of the late Richard MacCormac and Rick Mather dominated procurement lists. Both were highly adept at the provision of a deferential stripe of modern architecture, wary of technical innovation and fundamentally conservative in its social ambitions. Does the completion of the Blavatnik finally signal the return of a more optimistic agenda? I very much hope so. For all its faults, the Florey stands as testament to the university building’s unique capacity to serve as a site of formal and social experiment, an incubator for the future.

 

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