Connecting old and new

Connecting old and new

Wright & Wright Architects complete redevelopment programme at St John’s College, Oxford

Wright & Wright Architects have completed a decade-long redevelopment and conservation programme at St John’s College, Oxford. The culmination of this project sees the restoration and remodelling of two of Oxford’s most historic libraries, an environmental upgrade to a unique sequence of Grade I listed spaces, and the conservation of what has been described as the most important Baroque building in the UK.

The primary purpose of the scheme has been to expand library and study space at the College, thereby improving facilities for students, staff and Fellows as well as attracting international research talent for public programmes. The opening of our award-winning new Library and Study Centre in 2019 radically improved the College with the creation of dedicated new library space for students for the first time in the College’s history. In turn this has enabled the restoration and conservation of the College’s historic libraries, and a successful creative fusion of old and new that seamlessly knits together contemporary architecture and Grade I listed buildings. Additionally, through a range of environmental control strategies, the project decreases the carbon footprint of the College and serves as an exemplar of sustainability.

Connecting old and new
With successive phases of expansion and development at St John’s drawing students away from the College’s original core, there was a danger that the historic libraries would cease to be actively used and that the extraordinary 17th century Canterbury Quadrangle would be populated more by tourists than students. Positioning the new Library and Study Centre just beyond the quadrangle aimed to address this, but the dilemma of how to connect old and new without disrupting the appearance of the Grade I listed building remained. The solution lay behind a long-disused door within the quadrangle’s eastern cloister.

A half-forgotten corridor, known as the Otranto Passage, was originally constructed as part of the Canterbury Quadrangle in order to give the cloister spatial balance. More recently it had been used as library storage space and, with the creation of the Library and Study Centre, provided the perfect alternative route from the Canterbury Quadrangle into the Old and Laudian Libraries. We inserted a new staircase and lift to provide fully accessible connections between the Study Centre and Laudian Library, establishing a cohesive sequence of spaces that culminates with the Old Library. Here, precious Special Collections are now kept behind a new glass screen which provides enhanced security without disrupting the character of the Old Library.

Restoring the historic libraries
The Old Library at St John’s College represents a critical moment in architectural history, as this was the first college library to be equipped with shelved bookcases or presses instead of the low lecterns typically found in medieval libraries. These rare 16th century bookcases survive, and were restored to their historic and aesthetic integrity by removing later accretions and undertaking careful conservation and repair.

The interior of the adjacent Laudian Library – named after its 17th century patron William Laud – was the subject of an over-enthusiastic Victorian restoration, and was cluttered and cramped. Bookshelves were poorly arranged and there were not enough desks for students to study comfortably. We unobtrusively adjusted the layout to create additional study space, making for a more comfortable and productive environment, without disrupting the character and architectural authenticity of the historic interior. An area at the junction of the Old and Laudian Libraries has also been restored as a new exhibition space, where treasures from the College’s extraordinary collection are now displayed.

Reinstating the historic heart of St John’s
The architectural glory of St John’s College is the Canterbury Quadrangle, which was completed in 1635. We replaced two colonnades supporting the quadrangle cloisters as part of a comprehensive programme of historic building conservation and repair. The original 17th century columns - carved using local Bletchingdon Marble, off-bed - had developed dangerous fissures, with several having been replaced with Portland stone in the early 20th century. The consequent visual mismatch, and instability of the surviving original columns, necessitated their entire replacement.

As the original marble is no longer quarried, the practice undertook a painstaking programme of sourcing and laboratory testing (as well as delicate negotiations with Historic England) to identify a suitable replacement stone, before settling on Swaledale Fossil – a carboniferous limestone from County Durham, more than 350 million years old. The removal and replacement of the columns – and the propping of the quadrangle arcades – proved a significant technical challenge. The result, however, is an outstanding engineering feat: polishing has revealed a dense pattern of gleaming fossils on the surface of each column, and the new colonnade has restored the architectural coherence and visual harmony of Laud’s arrangement. The columns’ cool grey shading complements the honey-like tones of the quadrangle’s stonework and emphasises the overall composition.

Elsewhere throughout the Canterbury Quadrangle, we oversaw a comprehensive programme of masonry repairs – including to parapets and mouldings, as well as the quadrangle’s two ceremonial frontispieces and intricate decorative frieze. Stone paving to the cloisters was also replaced.

Within, a series of rooms beneath the Old Library – known as the Paddy Rooms – had been unsympathetically converted to create additional library space in the 1970s. From the outset, their interiors were cramped and unattractive, with students struggling to find space to study. Poor quality partitions, ugly suspended ceilings and harsh lighting made for uninspiring interiors that jarred with their historic setting.

The creation of the new Library and Study Centre properly resolved the shortage of adequate study space for students, enabling the contents of the Paddy Rooms to be moved, with the spaces reinstated as a suite of teaching rooms for College Fellows. Here, the project team’s approach was heavily informed by extensive photographic and archival research into the historic layout and details of these spaces. Blocked openings were opened, and 1970s addition removed, with original fireplaces and timber panelling restored to reflect the original, re-discovered finishes.

Balancing sustainability and conservation
A particular challenge given their Grade I listed status was improving services and upgrading the historic libraries’ thermal performance, a key element of the College’s brief. Insulation was installed where possible without disturbing the existing stone-clad roof. Unobtrusive secondary glazing to the historic libraries has significantly reduced heat loss, while concealed and more efficient services now replace an earlier jumble of radiators and pipework. This in turn has enabled the historic bookcases to be carefully restored where parts had been carelessly hacked into to accommodate pipe runs. Harsh lighting has also been replaced with more sympathetic bespoke fittings, and a new network of data and power cables was seamlessly installed into the historic interiors.

Thanks to collaboration with engineers Max Fordham, we have successfully balanced energy performance measures with sensitive interventions. When design work began over ten years ago, the sustainability strategy centred on passive design principles and maximising on-site renewable energy generation was seen as pioneering. The large expanse of the Great Lawn adjacent to the Canterbury Quadrangle allowed for the installation of boreholes to provide heating and cooling to both the new Library and Study Centre as well as the historic libraries – an uncommon approach at the time – and a large PV array on the new Library and Study Centre allows this low-energy project to generate a significant amount of the energy being consumed.

Measured energy data has shown that the Library and Study Centre is performing exceptionally well in terms of operational energy consumption, meeting the RIBA and LETI targets, with carbon emissions also well below CIBSE industry benchmarks. Taken together, the old and new library and study spaces are fundamental in helping St John’s College to decarbonise, as part of the University of Oxford’s target to achieve net zero carbon by 2035.

Collaborations and discoveries
The conservation of the historic spaces at St John’s College is the result of close and productive relationships with Historic England, the City Planning and Conservation officers, the College community and specialist conservators who, together with the project team, questioned and challenged all decisions to ensure they would achieve the best possible outcomes. This team included stonework specialists Szerelmey, specialist joiners at Owlsworth IJP, and NBJ, as well as decorative arts conservators Cliveden Conservation. Throughout the programme, a series of artist collaborations resulted in site-specific commissions across the site, including a sculpted stone relief on the walls of the Library and Study Centre by Susanna Heron, and tapestries by Susan Morris and Mary Lum.

The completion of works at St John’s College marks the end of an extraordinary project, and the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the history of the College. St John’s have been a remarkable and far-sighted client - carefully balancing their responsibilities as custodians of historic buildings and spaces with a willingness to embrace contemporary architecture and a pioneering approach to environmental sustainability. Our work has focused on improving the student experience and preserving the function and meaning of historic buildings, through an approach that develops a built tradition of craft and making, and enhances the spirit of the place.

Sandy Wright is founding partner at Wright & Wright Architects

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