plans of the schwarzman centre, altered digitally, with title text overlaid

Back to the future: the Schwarzman Humanities Centre and Oxford’s complicated relationship with modern architecture

The final plans for a state-of-the-art humanities building for Oxford University have now been published. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, designed by Hopkins Architects, is one of the latest in a string of new developments, such as Jesus College’s Cheng Yu Tung Building, which aim to showcase an inclusive, outward-facing university for future generations. 

Set to cost £170 million to complete, the proposed complex will include academic facilities, an Institute for Ethics in AI, and a dedicated hub for engagement with schools, alongside a concert hall, a theatre, and a ‘black box’ lab for experimental performance. The space, according to the university’s website, is designed to promote ‘experiential learning and bold experimentation through cross-disciplinary and collaborative study’. But, unlike its future neighbour, the spaceship-like Blavatnik School of Government, its sandstone façade seems to reflect more the university’s conservative past than its ambition of a progressive and open future. 

There has been heated debate over the £150 million donation towards the building by Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group and prominent supporter of Donald Trump during his presidency. Journalist Catherine Bennett, for example, considered the ethical implications of the university accepting such endowments, and posed the uncomfortable question that, “for £150m, can anyone buy naming rights at a great academic institution?”. 

The political question aside, there has been little debate about aesthetics. At a first glance, what does the complex say about Oxford University’s current image and future aspirations?

The Schwarzman Centre marries the ancient and the modern but tips the scales more in favour of tradition, with its arched colonnades and regularized façade in warm yellow stone. Stone is an effective insulator and may reflect environmental concerns, furthering Oxford University’s aim to halve its carbon emissions by 2030. However, concerns over sustainability cannot be the sole explanation for why this complex draws so heavily on Oxford’s classical heritage. 

The city of ‘dreaming spires’ has never had a wholly comfortable relationship with modern or postmodern architecture. James Stirling’s unapologetically brutalist Florey Building, commissioned in 1966, is thought to have killed off the fashion in Oxford for the remainder of the twentieth century. Since then, efforts to rehabilitate the Florey’s tarnished legacy have achieved some success – it became a Grade II listed structure in 2009. However, the pseudo-amphitheatre structure still generates plenty of controversy in architectural circles and beyond. It is telling that Oxford University did not delve back into the realm of bold, geometric modernity on a similarly grand scale until 2016, with Herzog & de Meuron’s Blavatnik School. The circular glass structure, in what some would describe as a satisfying irony, earned a spot on the Stirling Prize shortlist for that year. 

Like them or not, the Blavatnik and the Florey make you feel something, and the latter has already found its place in the annals of Oxford’s architectural history.  When the many dusty libraries and soaring towers begin to feel claustrophobic, these structures provide a welcome visual contrast and encourage us to think about the city with a fresh perspective. Of course, a building’s ability to elicit an emotional response is not a measure of its whole value – functionality is an equally important consideration. And responses are guaranteed to be subjective. But I do wonder how the Schwarzman will fare in future decades as a modern-classical hybrid which is more tethered to tradition than innovation. It is the exterior of the building, not the interior, which creates a powerful first impression. Surely, Oxford’s new ‘home for the humanities’ should represent the future of English, History, or languages, rather than their past? 

It is true that some of the obstacles to more daring architecture in the city transcend the university institution. In the Schwarzman Centre’s case, Historic England deemed a complementary relationship with the nearby Grade I-listed Radcliffe Observatory Building of the ‘highest importance’, and the design seems to have been conceived with this awareness in mind. But again, this does not explain why the Schwarzman, at least in technical drawing form, does not feel welcoming. In fact, the Oxford Preservation Trust expressed concerns that arched colonnades in particular can make a building feel ‘private and exclusive’, as can be observed at the Weston Library. 

For me, the Centre – and indeed the whole architectural debate – represents Oxford’s ongoing struggle to strive for a progressive image while remaining firmly rooted in tried-and-tested tradition. Some would argue that this consistency and cautious attitude to change accounts for the university’s survival as an institution – its characteristic, honey-coloured buildings appear timeless, after all. But the university is being forced to reckon with its past, on display everywhere, more and more, as the recent controversy over the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College has shown us. In academic circles, critical explorations of space and place are receiving greater attention. There seems to be no better time for the university to take a few more steps, even tentative ones, in the direction of architectural modernization. 

This is not to say that all university buildings should look like the Blavatnik. But Oxford University’s historic architecture is so prolific and synonymous with the institution that a few newer buildings, which are not afraid to take a risk and break new ground, would not overshadow this legacy. Architecture speaks to us about the spirit of an age – what is the story the Schwarzman Centre will tell us?


Sources

Bennett, C., 2019. Ethics fly out of the window at Oxford University when big donors come calling. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/22/ethics-fly-out-window-oxford-university-when-big-donors-come-calling> [Accessed 28 December 2021].

Fulcher, M., 2021. Hopkins’ contest-winning Oxford University humanities plans revealed. Architects’ Journal, [online] Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/hopkins-contest-winning-oxford-university-humanities-plans-revealed

Hall, O., 2021. Plans submitted for Schwarzman humanities centre. Cherwell, [online] Available at: https://cherwell.org/2021/12/02/plans-submitted-for-schwarzman-humanities-centre/

Mark, L., Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University by Herzog & de Meuron. Architects’ Journal, [online] Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/blavatnik-school-of-government-oxford-university-by-herzog-de-meuron

Schwarzmancentre.ox.ac.uk. 2021. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. [online] Available at: <https://www.schwarzmancentre.ox.ac.uk/> [Accessed 22 December 2021].

Woodman, E., 2016. 50 years on, Oxford is giving progressive architecture another go. Architects’ Journal, [online] Available at: <https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/opinion/50-years-on-oxford-is-giving-progressive-architecture-another-go> [Accessed 22 December 2021].

Planning application documents

Link to all planning application documents here, including the letter from Historic England to Oxford City Council and the letter from Oxford Preservation Trust to Oxford City Council.


Title image taken from Oxford University website.