Future Cities Forum's walking tour with Wright & Wright Architects at St John's College, Oxford
Above: St John's College Oxford porter's lodge gate on St Giles.
Future Cities Forum was very privileged to have Founding Partner of Wright & Wright Architects, Sandy Wright, to guide our event contributors round the newly designed library and study areas of St John's College, Oxford last week.
The tour started in the Canterbury Quad, where Sandy explained about the masterplan which encompassed three key phases, beginning with the refurbishment of the Old and Laudian Libraries, followed by the addition of a new Study Centre. This has created an active connection between the historic and the more modern elements of the College, strengthening links between different eras. Finally, the refurbishment of the 17th century Canterbury Quadrangle restored the College’s set piece space, involving the complex technicalities of replacing the existing stonework.
Wright & Wright understands the history and development of the colleges, both as academic institutions and as assemblages of buildings, and worked closely with St John’s (previous) President Maggie Snowling on her programme to broaden College inclusion and physically rebalance the campus by attracting students back to its heart.
Wright and Wright's Founding Partner, Sandy Wright, talks to Future Cities Forum guests in the Canterbury Quadrangle
Founded in 1555 St John’s College Oxford was established at a time of immense religious and political upheaval, but did not rise to prominence until the era of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I. Laud’s ideals are persuasively proclaimed in the Canterbury Quadrangle, one of the most impressive Baroque set pieces in Oxford and in England.
A concerto of ornamented stone, it remains largely as Laud left it, a ceremonial space of great subtlety and sophistication. Its architecture inspired the artwork for Wright & Wright’s new Study Centre, which abstracts the Baroque floridity of its stone carving into a powerful, contemporary language. The cloister of the Canterbury Quadrangle, newly refurbished by Wright & Wright in 2023.
'Our use of materials reflects an understanding of their inherent characteristics which informs the structure, function and meaning of our buildings.
'We look at what material can do and we also embrace a culture of craft and making. How things are made influences the solution, and the creation of signature details captures and enhances the spirit of the place.'
Sandy Wright Founding Partner, Wright & Wright
The complex, highly technical work of replacing the stone columns in the Canterbury Quad involved conservation, engineering and source material specialists. Dating from 1636, the stone columns in Canterbury Quad required replacing, as over the centuries, the 2.5m-high shafts had developed fissures, some serious. The columns were created from local Bletchingdon marble, but the original quarry had closed.
Phase III works on the Canterbury Quad involved detailed assessment studies, conservation work, and expert stone craftsmanship to restore and stabilize the 17th Century facade.
Wright & Wright worked with a team of stone experts, including a petrologist, quarry consultant and stonemason, to source a suitable stone for the replacement columns, eventually alighting on Swaledale Fossil, a carboniferous limestone from a quarry near Barnard Castle in County Durham. The design process involved extensive laboratory testing for resistance to compression, weathering and frost, to achieve the reassurances that would satisfy the client, planners and Historic England.
Unpolished and polished Swaledale Fossil, a carboniferous limestone from a local quarry near Barnard Castle was selected by a team of stone experts for its durability. Following testing, it was decided to cut the stone for the bases and capitals on-bed and the shafts off-bed. Even though the shaft stone was off-bed, it is far stronger, so will last much longer. Containing myriads of tiny fossils, the limestone also polishes up well. The intricate surface pattern of gleaming fossils animates the columns and enriches the architecture of the historic Canterbury Quad.
St John's Old Library
Dating from 1598, St John’s Old Library was the first Oxford college library to include upright bookcases, with seats and desks between them instead of the low lecterns that typically furnished medieval libraries. The Library was extended during the 1630s to link it with the new Inner Library, now called the Laudian Library, named after William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I.
The refurbishment of the Old and Laudian Libraries formed part of St John’s ambition to upgrade its library and archive facilities, through the construction of a new Study Centre, which opened in 2019. The new building also rebalances the College’s centre of gravity, by creating a connection with the northern part of its campus. The refurbishment programme involved clarifying the existing arrangement of historic spaces and routes, unravelling circulation and forging physical and experiential connections between old and new parts.
Specific fabric improvements included upgrading heating, lighting and electrical systems and installing insulation, changes designed to minimise energy use and help regulate environmental conditions. Discreet, wooden-edged double-glazing with internal blinds and UV filters help minimise damage to the collections from sunlight. Seating arrangements were rationalised, and new reader desks inserted into the windows of the Laudian Library to provide tranquil study spaces.
Sandy Wright led Future Cities Forum guests through the President's Garden to view a richly carved stone wall called 'Stone Drawing' (Image of the new library at St John's College Oxford - courtesy Hufton + Crow)
The concept of richly ornamented stone was important to Wright & Wright from the outset, partly inspired by the original Baroque carvings in Canterbury Quadrangle and more profoundly, it also alludes to the Jungian ideas of archetypes. in that certain patterns and rhythms have deeply embedded primordial roots in human consciousness, concealing and revealing an abstract, dreamlike world.
Artist Susanna Heron's carving (above) passes across the irregular grid of the stone wall, combining the ornate and organic with the rectilinear geometry of the architecture. The work takes advantage of the changing light on the west face, so that lines appear and recede, while shadows are cast through the day.
Below: Future Cities Forum's guests view 'Stone Drawing' from inside the college building.
Future Cities Forum's guests experience the beauty of Heron's 'Stone Drawing' from inside the college.
Set along the east edge of the garden, the Study Centre is accessed by the Otranto Passage, a long, thin corridor now refurbished to create a new route through Canterbury Quad. Conceived as series of overlapping planes of masonry and glass, the Study Centre resembles a stone casket, with a complex section and thick-skinned walls that sculpt and moderate light, giving each space a distinct character.
Poetry is combined with pragmatism, as the building incorporates a number of environmental control measures designed to reduce its energy consumption, such as a high thermal mass, heating provided by water from ground source boreholes and photovoltaic panels. Such measures are designed to fully offset the building’s carbon emissions to achieve a carbon neutral status.
The integration of new elements into historic building fabric is a specialism of Wright & Wright's. Here, a new stairwell is stitched into the timber-framed 17th century interiors.
A beautifully crafted new staircase in stone and bronze leads up to the Laudian Library at first floor level, connecting it with the new Study Centre, but draws back, tantalisingly, from touching the original fabric to subtly articulate and emphasise the distinction between new and historic elements.
Finally, Sandy led Future Cities Forum's guests to view the window detailing of the Mark Bedingham seminar room - part of the new library and study centre, before moving inside to start 'Science Cities'
Housing the College’s world-class Special Collections and containing 120 reader desks, the new Study Centre creates an active connection between Canterbury Quad and the more modern elements of the College, strengthening links between different eras.
The site in the President’s Garden was chosen as it had the least impact on existing surroundings and landscape, while enabling library resources to be consolidated in a single location in strictly environmentally controlled conditions.
Guests made their way inside the new library to the Mark Bedingham Room to join Future Cities Forum's discussion on the future economy for Oxford, investments in science, housing and transport. See our separate write ups in our newsletters.
Those taking part were:
Oxford University Medical Sciences Division's Brid Cronin; Oxford City Council's Leader Susan Brown; Oxford County Council's Robin Rogers; Oxford City Council's Tom Bridgman; Paddington Life Sciences and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Dr Suki Balendra; Scott Brownrigg's Ed Hayden; ARC Group / Advanced Research Clusters, Dan Williams,;OxLEP's Sebastian Johnson,; Wright & Wright Architects, Sandy Wright; Mills & Reeve partners, Laura Ludlow and Peter McLintock; Grimshaw's Harriet Jenkins; Pilbrow & Partners, Fred Pilbrow; BioMed Realty's Orestis Tzortzoglou; JLL's Chris Walters; Oxford University Hospitals' Susan Dougall; Lambsquay Consulting's Simon Payne;Gardiner & Theobald's Jo Richmond; Buro Happold's Neil Billett; MICA Architects, Jessie Turnbull and Eversheds Sutherland's Partner Sebastien Bonneau.
Thank you once again to Sandy Wright for a fascinating tour of Wright & Wright's college master-plan, restoration work and creation of the new library and study centre at St John's College, Oxford.