Oxford City Council has approved plans by Purcell for the conservation and renovation of the Hilda Besse building at St Antony’s College, Oxford. This is the first time that the Grade II-listed, post-war college building will undergo large-scale refurbishment works.

The Hilda Besse Building is a seminal piece of Post-war architecture and is arguably one of HKPA’s finest realised works. Completed in 1970 by John Partridge, the Hilda Besse sits at the heart of the college both physically and philosophically, hosting many of the college’s key social spaces, such as the dining hall, common rooms and buttery, as well as private dining facilities and kitchen. The building won the RIBA Architecture Award and Concrete Society Award in 1971, noted for its skilful application of concrete in a modern interpretation of the traditional hall. Research into the original construction drawings and photography pinned down areas where the building has been altered from its intended design, which instigated our approach to the restoration.

A ‘light touch’ approach is planned, with minimal alterations to the building exterior focusing on cleaning and repairs to match the existing building fabric as closely as possible. The concrete structure will be cleaned with any ‘defects’ being cut out, treated and repaired with a surface aggregate finish to match the existing, making any such repairs as invisible as possible.

Our proposal for the interior respects the consistency of detailing and limited material palette, respecting the building’s defining character, with any changes backed up by historic drawings or photographic evidence. For example, in the dining room, the floor will revert to its original dark-finish wooden floor, and the originally designed diagrid laying pattern will be realised. Lost octagonal ceiling rafts will be reinstated. Refreshed plans for the first floor include the formation of a new, larger Fellows Dining Room in part of the old kitchen, which will be replaced with a modern kitchen that is fit for purpose. The buttery will be stripped back to its bare brick to create a more textural ambience, with the original bar restored and refurbished.

© Churchman Thornhill Finch

Significantly, the proposal also includes plans to re-landscape the college quad, in collaboration with Churchman Thornhill Finch. Currently, this is a confusing space as a result of an evolving site in which each building around the perimeter has been built in isolation. The approved plans will see improvements in landscaping aesthetics, access points, routes and services.

The architectural value of the building is rooted in the integrity of its design and materiality, with the principal spaces and many of their original finishes surviving, albeit in varying conditions. The high levels of natural light permitted into these spaces, as well as repeated design and structural motifs, emphasise the building’s post-war architecture. As such, Purcell’s light-touch approach to the conservation and renovation of the building’s brutalist architecture will maintain the honesty of the original design intent while ensuring its longevity as a valuable building for years to come.

Matthew Tromans, Purcell Senior Architect