Keble College is an enduring testament to the power of English Victorianism, as manifest both in its social ideals and architecture. John Keble was a founder of the influential Oxford Movement, an attempt to restore traditional Catholic teaching to the Church of England, which also emphasised social work, scholarship and educational advancement. His eponymous college, the first entirely new foundation since Wadham in 1610, sough to create an establishment where 'men of liberal education may find all the advantages of a College combined with economy and simplicity of living.(1) Although Keble died in 1866, by 1882 his posthumous monument had been spectacularly realised in the neo-medieval manner by William Butterfield. The arrangement of regimented rooms along corridors marked a significantly break with the Oxford tradition of external stairs leading to groups of rooms. As the original aim was to encourage an increased measure of self reliance, provision for servants' quarters was restrained by the standard of the day. Yet the exterior was far from reticent, emboldened by Butterfield's rampant Gothik polychromy, an energetic elaboration on his All Saints Church at Margaret Street in London. Writing in 1872, Charles Eastlake summed up public sentiment towards Oxford's newest college: 'Posterity may find something to smile at as eccentric, something to deplore as ill-judged, and much that will astonish as daring, but they will find nothing to despite as common or mean.(2)
Keble's vigorous, Victorian flamboyance has always dominated its surroundings.
When, in the 1970s, the college was at last able to command a substantial addition, ABK, its chosen architect, wisely elected not to compete with Butterfield, opting instead for the unambiguously modern idiom of yellow bricks and curtain walling, in a distinctive serpentine form (AR December 1977). However the way in which the ABK building protectively defines a perimeter street edge is reminiscent of Butterfield's original sequence of quads. A similarly deferential strategy informs the college's most recent addition by Rick Mather Architects. The scheme has its origins in the 1980s, when Oxford City Council decreed that colleges must provide accommodation for all their students. To satisfy this requirement, Keble needed roughly 200 additional rooms and to preserve the cohensiveness of college membership and ease administration, the new accommodation (ideally) would be located within the existing college grounds. Following a limited competition, Rick Mather Architects (RMA) were selected to develop a design proposal. The RMA competition entry identified three possible sites for the new accommodation. Consultation of the Keble drawing archives revealed that Butterfield had proposed an extension of the college to the west along Keble Road at the end of the existing Fellow's Garden. Development of this site along the street edge follows Keble's established pattern of perimeter building and provides further enclosure to the Fellow's Garden.
The new residences are contained in a modest four-storey block, its pitched roof exactly in line with the adjacent Butterfield buildings. At the west end, the new addition steps up one floor, echoing the elevated ends of Butterfield block on the east side of the Fellow's Garden. At the east end it steps down, and is set back to create a space for the entrance from Liddon Quad.
Despite the apparent formal similarities, the new building is deeper than Butterfield's basic narrow footprint, allowing rooms to be arranged along corridors end on rather than side on. This reduces the length of the corridors and, because the corridors are intended to be more intensely used, the spaces become more animated. By their very nature, halls of residence are an inherently reductivist typology - rows of cells linked by endless corridors, but with project such as residences for the University of East Anglia, RMA has shown a capacity for experimentation that both surprises and delights. Here, although the building presents a suitably solemn face to the world - an understated essay in variably patterned brick slivers, uniformly the colour of red oxide - it is the interior that reveals intriguing spatial sleight of hand. The key move is the positioning of the circulation spine in the centre of the plan, as opposed the more conventional arrangement of staircases at either end. This means that the heart of the block is dramatically cleft by an eye-shaped atrium containing a great curving stair, fanning link bridges to each floor and a gadget-like, glass-fronted lift. At the top of the atrium, the wall mutates into a large frameless glass rooflight, an apparently seamless oculus that draws light down through the building to ground level. This numinous core is not merely a dead circulation space, but a place where occupants can meet and socialise. The atrium open out further to form a roof garden, with views over Butterfield's Keble panoply and Oxford's dreaming spires beyond.
The new block comprises two types of living and studying accommodation - the traditional, monastic cell and the larger flat. Flats are located at the ends of the building, and are signified architecturally by the glazed protrusions of communal dining-cum-kitchen areas. Students tend to cook in their rooms, so this provides a safer and more convenient alternative, as well as a social focus.
Individual rooms have a mixture of loose and built-in furniture that exudes a Scandivian elegance and lightness; each also has its own modular shower and lavatory pod that simply slots into place on site. At basement level there are three common rooms that can be extended out to a generous south-facing terrace through a glass wall, creating an enlarged teaching or social space. The lawn of the Fellow's Garden slope gently down to meet the terrace.
Out of term time the building will be appropriated for conferences and seminars, as is now common practice with academic residences.
Despite being in the shadow of Butterfield's magnum opus, RMA's new building has a spirit of quiet, refined intensity, acting as a contemplative, modern foil to the effusive lyricism of history. In its assured manipulation of space and inventive attention to detail, it is also an exemplary embodiment of Keble's original principles of economy and simplicity of living.
(1) Oxford and Cambridge, Christopher Brooke, Roger Highfield, Wim Swaan, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p290. (2) The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire, Jennifer Sherwood and Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1975, p277.
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|Title Annotation:||residence building at Keble College in Oxford, England|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1995|
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