Friday18 August 2017

Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre, Oxford by Níall McLaughlin Architects

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At Worcester College, Oxford, Níall McLaughlin Architects has created an elegant building that manages to be both proudly contemporary and almost classically formal while moulding into the landscape. Ike Ijeh finds out how the architect managed it

The circular clerestory of the auditorium rises above the orthogonal block

The circular clerestory of the auditorium rises above the orthogonal block

In 2013 Níall McLaughlin Architects’ Bishop Edward King Chapel for Ripon Theological College just outside Oxford was a runner-up for the Stirling Prize and one of the most celebrated buildings of the year. This exquisite structure etched a sumptuously textured stone exterior onto a richly landscaped Oxfordshire setting and offered an ethereally charged interior where light and timber weaved together to mimic the fragile intricacy of lace.

Four years later many of these same ingredients appear in McLaughlin’s latest work. The Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre is a new £7.3m facility for the University of Oxford’s Worcester College that provides new teaching and studio space arranged around a set-piece auditorium.

At first glance, the temptation to make comparisons with Bishop Edward King Chapel are strong. Both buildings are faced in gorgeous Clipsham limestone, resplendent in sunlight with its warm, sandy hue. Both take on the form of small yet elegant pavilions nestling amid a verdant landscape. And with radiating fanlights of jutting clerestories hugging their rooflines, both evoke a formality that gives their contemporary forms an almost classical sense of order.

But to conclude that the buildings are essentially the same would do both a grave injustice. Bishop Edward King Chapel is a poetic, architectural expression of ancient theological ideas about sanctuary, pilgrimage and refuge, set against the gothic backdrop of historic collegiate buildings. The Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre, meanwhile, assumes a building form that is, in the words of project architect Alastair Crockett, “determined by its surroundings and which moulds itself around its landscape”.

The building features a deep recessed loggia at the centre of its principal elevation.

The building features a deep recessed loggia at the centre of its principal elevation.

There is another key driver that generated the building’s form: the amphitheatre at its centre. Despite the fact that the entire structure is single-storey, this part of the building is raised higher, with its distinctive clerestory clearly visible above the surrounding block.

Further dominance is conveyed by the clerestory being treated as a curved edge that extends like a fan across the roof and is the only element of the building to conspicuously break the precise orthogonal geometry.

Crockett describes the form of the building as “a series of blocks joined together by the canopy foyer that extends around the auditorium”. Accordingly, below the auditorium clerestory lie a cluster of rectilinear volumes that house the centre’s other facilities.

These volumes directly address the surroundings that Crockett also identified as key generators of the plan – essentially the physical constraints the building design had to navigate. These comprise its adjacent cricket pitch, a number of “significant” trees around which the footprint had to swerve and its flood plain location, which caused the ground floor to be raised approximately a metre above ground level.



Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre

Site plan

Despite the various assembled volumes that address these constraints, Crockett insists the building is “not an abstract form but is held together by the auditorium and the foyer”. And he is absolutely right. This is a tight and forensically coherent composition where the uniformity of materials and proportions helps to craft a masterclass in finely tuned massing.

For instance, while the clerestory is treated as a curve, its screen of slender chamfered fins reverberates on a larger scale on the cricket-pitch-facing facade below it. This is the principal elevation and Crockett describes it as the “dominant, hard edge” of the building.

The facade gathers into a screen of glass bays at either end that peel away at the centre to form a deep recessed loggia, in front of which the screen continues as freestanding columns. Behind the columns a flank of steps indicates the building’s flood plain elevation and rises up to a terrace flanked by glass doors and topped by a pergola open to the sky.

The entire composition is simple and restrained, but it is marked by an extraordinary level of sculptural elegance. The parity of treatment between upper clerestory and lower screen shrouds the building in an appropriately reassuring cloak of consistency but is still flexible enough to allow the energy of the building’s massing to be conveyed.

The foyer accentuates perspective to offer a framed view of a protected tree.

The foyer accentuates perspective to offer a framed view of a protected tree.

The composition also allows the building to be seamlessly inserted into its natural landscape. Romantically, this even includes a lake that was extended to flow right to the building entrance. While the cricket pitch facade intones formality and invites a head-on elevational view, the curved clerestory above it does the opposite, inviting the oblique views framed by gushing landscape so beloved of the English picturesque tradition and so evident in Oxford’s urban character.

The only potentially false note to the exterior is revealed on the entrance facade, which sits behind and perpendicular to the cricket pitch facade. Here the clerestory curve is revealed as a shallow inclined attic rather than the weighty lid the muscular strength of the main facade might have led one to expect. But proceeding inside the building soon explains why this was the case.

The clerestory is of course built over the auditorium and it is this space that provides the building’s second invigorating surprise. Before the visitor reaches this point, however, they must first cross the expansive foyers. These are bathed in light not only from the splendid views out over the cricket pitch but also from glass panels strategically placed to frame views of the “significant” trees that helped to inform the building’s footprint.

Moreover, faced with floors and walls finished in timber and stone and topped by a deep, textured ceiling comprising a coffered lattice of criss-crossing timber beams, the animated foyers recall a deconstructed version of the cella of a Grecian temple and engage in the same winning game of naturalism vs formality evident on the exterior.

The full extent of the rear auditorium wall open out into the foyer

The full extent of the rear auditorium wall open out into the foyer

But the sumptuous auditorium is the star of the show. Looking towards its stage the effect is rather like looking through a funnel with the inclining walls, floor and ceilings focusing your view. But in this telescopic viewpoint, it is what lurks in the peripheral view that fires the imagination.

There are the acoustic stitched timber walls on either side, the curving timber fascia behind, in which every panel opens to form a door out to the foyer like a dozen parting eyelids, and most sensuously, the light tumbling in from the clerestory above. This extends across an extraordinary sloping ceiling (hence the external inclined attic) vaulted into a springing web of shallow, falling coves.

The auditorium forms the principal volume in the building and acts as the hinge around which the foyer and ancillary teaching rooms radiate. But even though the building is far from symmetrical in plan and the layout of the foyer is distinctly irregular as it snakes and bulges and snakes its way around the auditorium, in the composition and detailing of the auditorium, principal façade and even the foyer columns and ceiling, it is impossible to ignore the stirring sense of formality and rationality that defines the entire project.

The auditorium is conceived as the heart of the scheme

The auditorium is conceived as the heart of the scheme

Project team

Architect: Níall Mclaughlin Architects
Client: Worcester College, University of Oxford
Main contractor: Beard Construction
Structural engineer: Price & Myers
Mechanical engineer: Lawton
Project manager: Bidwells

It is crowned by a distinctive clerestory screen

It is crowned by a distinctive clerestory screen


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