Built as a Technical College in the late 1950’s, the state of Oxford Brookes University’s Headington Campus was a product of both a ‘needs must’ approach to functional demands over the last 50 years, and a significant under-investment in the building fabric and public realm. With the exception of some occasional good quality tree groups and specimens, the campus landscape was asset-poor and difficult to navigate. The outdoor space that did exist was limited and characterised by awkward DDA fixtures, worn surfaces and dreary furniture.
The project vision was to provide a gateway to the University – an outward expression of its values and an inspirational space for its students, which helped to strengthen its place as a leading university. The overarching concept was to create simple, adaptable spaces which could cater for a number of functions and calendar events throughout the year. At a very early stage in the design process the principle of sliding, interactive or interlocking components, derived from the sculpture of the Spanish artist Chillada, where one element overlaps or interacts with another was established. This provided an analogy for maintaining seamless flow between internal and external spaces and a key design principle throughout. In addition, the basic geometric forms of Ben Nicholson’s bas relief sculpture provided further inspiration. This is particularly evident in the central courtyard, where the simple rectilinear forms of the raised lawn and sunken garden area counteract one-another. The landscape concept focussed on two things: first, a pared back palette of materials, as a counterbalance to the sumptuous use of colour and texture applied internally; and secondly, use of simple, three-dimensional geometric forms to control circulation and provide definition to space. Planting was to be kept minimal, and greenery derived primarily from large specimen trees set into paving and occasionally in low groundcover planting.
Together with Design Engine Architects, the first key decision was to move the existing entrance from Gipsy Lane to Headington Road. This would give a presence to the University on one of the main arterial routes into the city, which hitherto had been lacking. The second dealt with massing of the total floor space requirement by consolidating the library, teaching, catering and social spaces in a six-storey central hub to free up external space. A series of linear building forms, or “pegs” which penetrate the hub and project outwardly to connect with other buildings and provide definition to the three resulting external spaces: a public entrance piazza, a central courtyard, and a smaller student union courtyard. The entrance piazza rises on an inclined plane 2.5m from the roadside to connect with the building entrance at its first floor level. Starting at the roadside edge a continuous ribbon of cor-ten steel runs through the paving threshold into the colonnade itself and continues its journey through the building, acting as an intuitive way finding technique and linking mechanism between landscape and building. Seating units, steps and broad landings planted with pin oaks act as a perforated fourth edge to the piazza and transition between the upper incline of the space and the lower cross-campus pedestrian access road. It is here where the complex arrangement of underground passive heat exchange intakes, drainage attenuation and soft landscape interact. Where the Public Piazza is functionally about ‘movement’, the Central Courtyard is more static and is a destination in its own right. Multiple studies were undertaken to establish the potential uses and space requirements of a range of functions from the typical to less frequent one-off uses for performances, Open Days or exhibitions. The resultant design was for a space that had a soft character and offered a range of possible uses. This was evident in the colours and tones in the materials selection, which change from the harder, darker tones of the piazza to warm, cream-buff colours of locally distinctive Cotswold stone. The courtyard is divided into a rectangular raised lawn, which caters for informal sitting out and marquees for graduation ceremonies, and a sunken cobbled garden. The western access route opens out on to a smaller courtyard space, with a positive containment by buildings. The design focussed on a floorscape of varying size paving units and textures punctuated with huddled stems of silver birch pushing through the paved surface. This composition provides shade and interesting views both from the ground and upper levels.
The completed project is a model for education for the future, where excellence in reputation for teaching goes hand in hand with a high quality environment. It is a major educational landmark within the City of Oxford – itself defined by academia. The impact of the new scheme is transformative, both for students and staff and the academic landscape of Oxford.
Entrant office name: LUC
Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect
Other designers involved in the design of landscape:
Oxford Brookes University (Client)
Design Engine (Architect and Lead Consultant)
Turner & Townsend (Project & Cost Management)
Grontmij (M+E Engineer)
Ramboll (Civil and Structural Engineer)
Speirs + Major (Lighting Design)
Laing O’Rourke (Contractor)
Project location (Street, City, Country): Oxford Brookes University, Headington Campus, Gipsy Lane, Oxford, UK
Design year: 2009-2011
Year Built: 2012-2014