Back to school: We visit Zaha Hadid’s new Middle East Centre at Oxford University

St Antony's College in Oxford
The Middle East Centre at St Antony's College in Oxford just got a new building, courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
(Image credit: TBC)

Oxford University has a tradition of commissioning exceptional modern architecture, from Niall McLaughlin's award winning 2011 Somerville College student accommodation, to design classics like Arne Jacobsen's St Catherine's College. The new Investcorp Building for the school's Middle East Centre at St Antony's College is the campus' latest addition.  The stainless steel-clad, shiny, flowing piece is a confident departure from traditional Oxford's material palette of brick and stone - but one would expect nothing less from its acclaimed architect, Zaha Hadid.

Opened in 1957, the centre announced plans for a new building on its 50th anniversary, responding to a growing need for space. This addition represents a contemporary vision of what an Oxford building could look like, says the Centre's Director Eugene Rogan. 'Does it reflect the Middle East?' he asks. 'It is all about the 21st century.' While being a break from traditional forms of Middle Eastern architecture, the building's contemporary nature represents the present and future of the region, hinting to the area's current growth and ongoing change. And it feels at home in Oxford, continues Rogan, where modern architecture sits side by side with historical work.

The twisting form is compact, yet clever arrangement and an immaculately detailed interior makes it feel sharp, bright and generous. It touches its two Victorian neighbours - also part of the Centre's complex - but features its own independent entrance off the street, through a courtyard, past the 2013 Bennetts-designed Gateway Buildings and the Grade II Listed Hilda Besse Building by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis (1970-71). Surroundings were key, explains Project Director at Zaha Hadid Architects Jim Heverin: 'The university was keen that the building is both subservient and clearly contemporary.' It was, for example, designed around a preserved, mature tree sitting in the street-facing garden.

And this is not a building just for Oxford's community of scholars. 'It has been created to be open to the public,' says Rogan. 'It has all our public programs: archives, library, lecture theatre.' The ground floor features a café and concealed kitchen (this is also the space that is the most open towards the street, its front clad in glass), as well as the lobby to the building's dramatic undulating central staircase.

This leads a floor down, to a minimal, oak-clad auditorium with some 120 felt-covered seats, and a set of state-of-the-art archive rooms; and up, to two upper floors of library space, brightly lit through the entrance side's glass elevation (treated so as to control heat and light and protect the precious books and manuscripts handled inside). A series of punctures on the brilliant white ceiling create a composition of skylights, which flood the interior with natural light as well as hint at their architect's trademark architectural curves. 

designed to respect its environment

The building's long, shiny and curvaceous form was designed to respect its environment, but at the same time be distinctly contemporary

(Image credit: TBC)

touches its two Victorian neighbors

The Zaha Hadid-designed addition touches its two Victorian neighbors, but has its own separate entrance

(Image credit: TBC)

main entrance

The main entrance is tucked away at the back of the complex, off the main street

(Image credit: TBC)

visitors go through a courtyard and between existing buildings

To reach it, visitors go through a courtyard and between existing buildings, such as the Gateway Buildings by Bennetts and the Hilda Besse Building by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis

(Image credit: TBC)

new structure is clad in glass and stainless steel

In contrast to its Victorian neighbours, the new structure is clad in glass and stainless steel

(Image credit: TBC)

building was designed to curve around a protected mature tree

A mature tree at the site's street-facing garden was protected, so the building was designed to curve around it

(Image credit: TBC)

floor space houses a cafe

The open, garden-facing ground floor space houses a cafe, complete with a cleverly concealed kitchen area

(Image credit: TBC)

twisting staircase connects floors

A main, elaborate, twisting staircase connects all the building's floors

(Image credit: TBC)

library and reading rooms

The first floor provides space for the Centre's library and reading rooms...

(Image credit: TBC)

smooth, curvy punctures on the ceiling 

...beautifully lit by a series of smooth, curvy punctures on the ceiling 

(Image credit: TBC)

staircase leads down to archive room

The same staircase leads down to the lower ground level, which contains the centre's archive rooms...

(Image credit: TBC)

art auditorium well as a state of the art auditorium for lectures and events 

(Image credit: TBC)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).