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We were commissioned as Lead Architects and Heritage Consultants to design a new Graduate Centre and add an extension to existing student accommodation pavilions for University of Oxford’s St Catherine’s College.

Our design creates a £10m contemporary addition for the College’s graduate student community that provides a complementary accompaniment to Arne Jacobsen’s original campus design and Stephen Hodder’s later phases of development.

The University of Oxford is made up of 38 constituent colleges of which St Catherine's College is one of them. “St Catherine’s College is one of the newer colleges; it was constructed in 1960 by Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen,” explains Senior Architect at Purcell, Matthew Tromans. “It is arguably one of the best preserved original pieces of Jacobsen’s architecture globally.” St Catherine’s is both Grade I and Grade II listed and is consistent with Modernist architecture of its time; the buildings feature open-plan quads, large spacious rooms and long rectangular windows.

St Catherine’s has had two significant phases of expansion, including two phases by Stephen Hodder in the early 1990s and 2000s where he added student accommodation pavilions to the site. “One of the defining features of St Catherine’s is a consistency and a harmony of materials, scale, mass and detail,” says Matthew. “All of the buildings are designed with a rigid design grid of 3.165m in plan ‘modules’ and this three-dimensional grid permeates the whole site.”

The new Graduate Centre, designed by Purcell, maximises the potential of the constrained site, which sits in Oxford’s green belt and flood zone. The cylindrical three-storey structure responds to both Jacobsen’s original masterplan and Hodder’s distinctive pavilions. “Jacobsen uses pure form geometries consistently throughout the design,” says Matthew. “The music house is a plan form of two intersecting octagons, the gymnasium is a pure square, the cycle store is a cylindrical building and thus we designed the new Graduate Centre floor plan as a circle.”

The Graduate Centre contains a seminar room, common room and multi-use event space. The building’s facade features bronze and stainless steel cladding; inside features a variety of timbers; and the common room is well lit. “We adhered to the ideology of respecting the consistent materials palette,” explains Matthew.

Accessibility was a key consideration from the outset of the project. “Despite being a relatively small building it has a lift and accessible bathrooms on every floor,” says Matthew.

Purcell’s extension to the student accommodation is a continuation of Hodder’s Phase 2 development, successfully adding 78 en-suite bedrooms to the building. The team also introduced a central corridor to the extension, deviating from Hodder’s design, but ensuring that a lift would provide access to all areas.

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Photography credit: Quintin Lake photography

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