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