Taxing the Imagination

architects Zaha Hadid Architects
project The Investcorp Building for Oxford University's Middle East Centre, Oxford, United Kingdom
written by Catherine Slessor

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In a famous scene from the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the eponymous killer cyborg has itself apparently been terminated, reduced to a pool of molten metal following a protracted combat sequence. But then, slowly, deliberately and horrifyingly, it self-resurrects, recreating its humanoid carcass from the gleaming globular mass, like the Creature from the Titanium Lagoon, the ultimate terrifying proof of its invincibility.


It’s fanciful but nonetheless tempting to think that Zaha Hadid Architects’ (zha) new Investcorp Building for St Antony’s College in Oxford was the outcome of such a sci-fi gestation process. Certainly, it looks the part: a cyclopean glob of dazzling metal morphed into being and forensically extruded into a matrix of existing historic structures. It’s architecture as techno-shock, an uncompromising vision of the future in a place deeply in thrall to the past.


The reality is more prosaic, but still ingenious, taxing the imagination of structural engineers, in this case regular Hadid collaborators aktii. The warped cylindrical form, which curves in two (and sometimes three) dimensions in response to the exigencies of a compressed site, did not spontaneously materialize from a lake of molten metal. It is, in fact, formed from a complex rib cage of curved glulam beams sheathed in a shimmering skin of precisely jointed stainless steel panels. Plastic and Corten (pre-oxidised steel) were also considered as possible cladding materials but given the adjacency of a large protected sequoia tree and the potential for unsightly bird droppings, stainless steel was considered the most practical choice in terms of maintenance. The timber rib cage sits on a concrete structure extending 7m below ground to accommodate climate-controlled archive stores and a lecture hall.


It’s a compelling and, some might say, characteristically defiant response to the weighty context of Oxford. As an ancient seat of learning and privilege, the city’s university is a unique urban ensemble made up of over 30 individual colleges. Typically, college buildings are modest and humanly scaled, based on archetypes such as the cloistered courtyard, library and chapel. These have their origins in monastic life, providing sanctuary from the outside world and inculcating atmospheres conducive to study and contemplation. They are not much given to outward display and from the street there is usually little sense of what goes on behind their largely impervious stone facades.


Yet colleges cannot and do not stay stuck in time, and the addition of new buildings from different eras gives each historic corpus a distinctive character of accretion and evolution. Founded in 1950, St Antony’s College is one of the newer members of this academic elite, with a focus on post-graduate studies in International Relations. Its campus in north Oxford is structured around eight centres for regional research, and its architecture spans the eras, from a former Victorian convent, which now holds the college library, to zha’s conspicuous new addition, a library, lecture theatre and archive for the college’s Middle East Centre.


Within a collegiate jumble of styles that also includes a 1970s Brutalist dining hall, zha’s intervention is quick to assert itself. Anchored between a pair of existing Victorian buildings, its gleaming funnel sweeps imperiously around the sequoia tree and flares out into an adjacent courtyard. Anchored is perhaps the wrong term; the quasi-organic form suggests some kind of cocoon or succubus, clamped on to a helpless host, slowly draining its life essence. Though a planning requirement apparently stipulated that any new structure should defer to its historic counterparts, it still has an aura of an exquisitely attired provocateur and interloper.


From the public street side, the building presents an arrestingly surreal tableau, like a melting Dali watch, as corporeality is redefined in a supple, silvery pulse of metal. From above, it becomes apparent that the steel skin is punctured by a series of teardrop-shaped roof lights illuminating the first floor reading room. From the more private courtyard side, it exudes a different disposition, appearing as a giant vitrine or mute plasma screen clad in subtly fritted glass. During the day the glazed facade is darkly impassive, looming up close to the existing buildings with a faint air of menace, but at night it lights up and dissolves like a giant Chinese lantern, animating its surroundings.


Nearly 1200 sqm of new space has been created but given the site constraints, much of it is below ground, connected vertically by the sinuous umbilicus of a set-piece oak and glass staircase. The glazed south end frames and defines the building entrance, leading to a ground floor refectory that curves languidly around the sequoia tree. Above is the main reading room, an intimate, womb-like space illuminated by the teardrop perforations in the smoothly plastered ceiling. Their form alludes to the circular windows in an unrealised design for student halls of residence proposed by Oscar Niemeyer for St Antony’s in 1973. A further upper half-storey set in the flared south end contains a smaller secondary reading room and administrative offices.


Combining facilities for research with public conference spaces, the building has a remit to promote discourse and debate beyond the confines of academe. Unlike more traditional and more hermetic college buildings it feels accessible, open and modern, providing the Middle East Centre with a bold yet neutral identity to serve the region’s many different cultures and outlooks.


Inevitably, as Hadid’s oeuvre has expanded in output and scale, it has been accompanied by a growing sense of an office on cruise control, a familiar trajectory for many famous architects. Yet this more intimately scaled and highly crafted project speaks of a more focused and refined spirit of exploration and enquiry designed to test boundaries and perceptions. Granted, it is operating in the rarified milieu of Oxford, with the advantage of an enlightened client determined to encourage high profile architecture that draws attention to the college’s wider aims and ambitions. Nonetheless, it navigates its way around a challenging site and constraining context with singular agility. An agility (recalling Terminator) that might even be described as suspiciously superhuman.