Blavatnik School of Government

Oxford University

Teaching and research facilities for a new department of the University (Herzog & de Meuron, 2015)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the street the Blavatnik School of Government presents a stack of delicate glass drums, stepping back from the pavement and separated only by thin bands of concrete. That concrete is, of course, more robust than it appears, cast in situ and providing seven floors of accommodation for teaching and learning, academic offices and supporting activities. Inside the drums are hollowed out into a dramatic full-height atrium, the Forum, shaped by large, overlapping galleries that can be used for congregating, meeting and socialising – what the architects have termed “a vertical public space”. Warm timber lines the walls and floors, and is even used on the entrance doors (but the wooden ‘picture frame’ window above them is simply incongruous).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis fabulous edifice is nothing like any other building in Oxford, and possibly quite unlike anything you have ever seen, yet is has some definite roots. The architects claim certain historic and formal references, pointing to other buildings employing circular forms, especially government buildings, around the world; the first floor extends the circle into a U-shape, which references Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre (1669), and here forms a classically-inspired portico for the central entrance on Walton Street. The building is setback and freestanding, like Gibbs’s Radcliffe Camera (1749) or perhaps like other circular office blocks – Foster’s Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe, 2004) comes to mind – and therefore somewhat freed from its context. Critics have reacted against its form, materials, and above all its scale, but it has been well received locally and its supporters saw it shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. For The Guardian it is a “corporate temple”, but this is equally true of all recent large projects in Oxford, which depend as ever on generous private patronage. For Rowan Moore, the BGS succeeds as “something both confident in itself and from another world.”

Image © Rob Judges

Construction image © Rob Judges

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Awards: shortlisted for the 2016 RIBA Stirling Prize; RIBA National Award 2016; RIBA South Client of the Year 2016; RIBA South Region Award 2016; OPT Award 2016

References: William Whyte, ‘Eye of the beholder’, Oxford Today, Vol. 26 No. 1, Michaelmas 2013, pp. 33-5.

Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Oxford OX2 6GG