Dr Neal Shasore (2007, History of Art), was speaking alongside Amanda Levete, Principal of architecture studio AL_A, who designed Wadham’s newly opened Dr Lee Shau Kee Building and William Doo Undergraduate Centre.
For all the admiration of Oxford’s architectural heritage, the buildings of the university and colleges can be intimidating said Neal. They can, for marginalised communities, have deeply upsetting resonances relating to enduring injustices such as slavery and empire.
“That the access agenda is starting to have physical manifestation in built form is hugely exciting – Amanda’s team has fired an opening salvo and it will be interesting to see how this develops throughout the university in the coming years,” added Neal.
Amanda admitted that the wider culture and context of Oxford Colleges can be intimidating to students… and to architects too. In creating Wadham’s Back Quad buildings, her team were addressing the duality of history and progressiveness.
“Aspiration is really what this project is about…and what makes Wadham an exceptional community - the importance and generosity of donors giving the students of tomorrow access to the same transformational experience that they had at Wadham,” she said.
Amanda explained that in designing the buildings AL_A started by looking at the space where the buildings would sit and the potential of that space to act as a pivot point from where connections could be made to different parts of the College. Crucial to the design was an increased transparency between the Back Quad and Webb (formerly Bar) Quad and creating spaces for social interaction.
She describes the new buildings as brother and sister “with different identities but a shared endeavour.” The generous curved external steps create a social space alongside the ground floor open passageway between the two Quads, with further visibility between the two quads facilitated by the use of glass.
The brightly coloured stair unites the two buildings and “speaks of youth and modernity” she added. Stairs have a particular resonance in Oxford Colleges but the orange stair that links the two buildings was deliberately stand out. “Orange is fun, its young, it’s unexpected – you have to take a position on whether you like the colour or not…It stops you in your tracks a little bit and forces you to think.”
Neal commented: “I think architecture should ask its users and its viewers to do some work – it’s what I mean by critical design rather than insipid historicism or pastiche. You want the development of the College site to be challenging with unexpected relations between the old and the new.”
He added that the new buildings will be “the most animate part of the site” in contrast to the austerity of Front Quad.
At this Wadham alumni event hosted by Wadham Fellow Dr Jane Garnett, and attended by some 100 alumni, Neal presented the architectural history of the Wadham while Amanda outlined the inspiration and vision for the new buildings.
Alumni questions focused on sustainability, confidence in architecture and accessibility for students with disabilities.
Listen to the discussion here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFABFiOdvVQ