Stelios Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, Oxford University

Inserting new into old

Our design for the University of Oxford’s new Classics Faculty building realised the full potential of their challenging site in central Oxford, sandwiched between Blackfriars College and the Ashmolean Museum.

This transformative project brought the three listed buildings in which the faculty had been housed into full use, and provided new open plan, communal and specialist spaces to the rear of the plot previously occupied by subsidiary structures. Creating an entrance from St Giles, through the ground floor of the narrowest historic building, gave the faculty an obvious entrance from the street, leading into the new atrium at the heart of the new centre. The faculty now benefits from a light, airy building with flexible teaching spaces and a coherent plan organised around a central top-lit atrium. The atrium provides a communal heart to the building, joining old and new, allowing the Faculty to socialise and hold special events.

‘Throughout the processes of design and building, the architects were exceptionally sensitive in engaging with the stakeholders and in responding to the stated needs of the Faculty in terms of the provision and configuration of facilities. It is also worth emphasising that there was no trace of a cavalier approach towards costs and the building was completed within budget. Individually and collectively, the firm as a whole and all the individuals in it were extremely co-operative and pleasant collaborators. The Ioannou Centre stands as a very strong testimonial to their vision and their professionalism’.

Professor Alan Bowman (Academic Project Sponsor, and former, Camden Professor of Ancient History and Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford)

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Our brief from the University was to provide high quality modern research and teaching facilities combined with flexible social space and administrative offices for the whole Classics Faculty. The Faculty already occupied some of the historic buildings on the site, which is in an excellent position at 65-67 St Giles in central Oxford, adjacent to the Ashmolean Museum and close to the Classics books collections within the Sackler Library.

The site for the new faculty building consisted of three principal buildings, with a jumble of ancillary buildings behind, many of which were derelict. All were Grade 2 listed. The principal rooms at the fronts had been previously converted to work together by driving a spine corridor from one to another, but the accommodation was severely compromised by the lack of a proper entrance, poor services infrastructure, absence of social facilities, lack of accessible facilities and inadequate circulation and escape.

The project to rebuild the Ashmolean Museum was a determining factor as the only available site access for both projects was the narrow lane between them, and this was to be filled by the Ashmolean proposals. A significant driver for the project was therefore to maximise the development of the site within the available window of opportunity.

  • Project Details

    • Location: Oxford
      Client: Oxford University
      Area: 2313 m2

The surrounding buildings were all listed, with the Ashmolean Museum Grade 1. The geometry of the new building needed to respect the lights of light from Blackfriars (a working Dominican community) to the north, and provide privacy to their south-facing cells, and this created a complex theoretical envelope for the new part of the building. Our proposals were developed through an extensive process of negotiation with the City’s conservation officer and archaeologist, and English Heritage, with both the listed structures and below-ground archaeology being of high significance.

The creation of a central atrium as the ‘heart’ for the building, full of natural light and air, and the creation of a generous entrance direct from St Giles, won us the commission, secured a funding grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and remained fundamental throughout.

Our proposals were founded on the decision to demolish the subsidiary buildings and the rear portions of the principle properties, to provide space for new facilities that could be combined with the historic spaces on St Giles, retained and refurbished. This allowed the facilities that were unsuitable for insertion in the historic fabric, e.g. lift, open plan work areas, lecture theatre, to be provided and minimised the extent of intervention in the historic fabric. The decision to proceed with a new basement, and to build right to the plot boundary, was taken to maximise floor area and provide secure storage for some of the Faculty’s research project materials.

vHH have faced the challenges of an extremely difficult building site with sensitivity and imagination and have produced plans which have been unanimously welcomed by our colleagues in the Faculty as promising excellent teaching, research and administrative facilities in pleasant, comfortable and imaginatively designed surroundings.

Professor Alan Bowman (Academic Project Sponsor, and former, Camden Professor of Ancient History and Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford)

The ground floor provides communal and social facilities, which are all accessed from the atrium space. For special occasions, such as public lectures, the common room can be opened up so it functions as a larger foyer. The atrium works to join old and new into a single entity and establishes clearly legible circulation throughout the building at all levels. Only one historic room is not now fully accessible.

Our focus on core concepts led to a design that was able to adapt to the various constraints as they were resolved. The language that developed transformed these constraints into a complexity and richness of form, which we tempered by using a small palette of decent materials and straightforward details. A great deal of attention was paid to the quality of the light, ventilation and acoustics. The informality of form, and quality and solidity of the detailing works well with the Oxford Gothic of the principal listed buildings and has proved durable and attractive.

The environment within the building is designed to benefit from natural light and ventilation wherever possible, with provision of ventilation paths and a high-level atrium exhaust to draw air through the building by stack effect. In the old building, the former chimney flues were used to provide supply air paths. The use of a concrete frame allows the thermal mass of the construction to be exploited. Mechanical ventilation is provided to areas where natural ventilation is not possible, with localised cooling to the seminar rooms to allow their continuous use.

The historic facades and roofs were repaired, and the lost Victorian shopfront to the northern building reinstated, using historic photographs to demonstrate to the statutory consultees what had been lost.  The new facades to the rear are treated as part of the Oxford tradition of red brick rear extensions, with simple and straightforward detailing. The large roof pitches to the north are zinc clad. Internally the use of Douglas fir for doors, partitioning and ceiling slats, and coloured fabric on the acoustic panels relieves a relatively neutral palette of materials. The atrium and circulation spaces benefit from the loan of plaster casts from the Ashmolean Museum and pictures and posters from the research projects collections.

A major constraint of the project was the very limited site access, combined with the need to crane over the historic fabric. This was complicated by the need to programme complete archaeological excavation of the basement within its piled basement walls. We were ruthless about not revisiting earlier decisions, and this strategy allowed the design to benefit from the contractor’s expert logistics input, maintain the design programme, and weather three rounds of value engineering to deliver the project on budget without loss of quality.

I had wanted to write to you for some time to thank you for the environment you created for us. I have heard nothing but praise for the building and I have brought many people in. There is a warmth about it that institutional buildings tend to lack. The light wood has a cosseting effect and the soft colours give a sense of calm. So, we are happy and very grateful to you and to your team.

Professor Donna Kurtz, (former) Professor of Classical Art in the Faculty of Classics

Project Timeline

  • 2002

    Site photo of existing

  • Concept design

    Sketches showing concept of linking new and existing structure

  • Planning submission

    Modelling the site and modern insertion into listed building

  • Start on site

    Demolition works and archaeology begin, pre-construction

  • On Site - Construction

    Inserting a new modern element into a listed structure, on an extremely tight city-centre site

  • Handover
  • 2007