SP 5205 OXFORD COWLEY PLACE
The Garden building at
At Hilda's College
Residential accommodation for students and graduates. 1968- 70 by Alison and Peter Smithson, job architect Peter Smithson, engineers Ove Arup and Partners. Pre-cast posts and beams, with concrete panels and a timber trellis; entrance front of pale brick, and internal brick walls; flat roof. 51 students' rooms on four floors, with one room for a member of staff, set around a central volume containing the services, separated stair compartment, and a room for the cleaning staff. A covered walkway links the building to the rest of the college, which repeats the timber motif, and gives on to a projecting trunk room store which is part of the original composition. The three main facades overlooking the garden relate to a preserved beech tree and demonstrate the Smithsons' interest in 'layering', with the facade set behind a trellis that runs between each floor level supported on capitals within the concrete frame. Aluminium horizontal sliding windows within timber frames. The entrance front (at the rear if one approaches from the grounds as intended), has a central well of glazing set behind brick ends which continue as enclosures to the walkway. The interior is notable for its use of fine timber and detailing. Timber staircase enclosed by glass and timber partitions. Full-height doors to all the rooms, and fitted cupboards and carefully planned dressing units within them.
The Smithsons interpreted their brief as being to construct a building that would be readily recognisable "as a girls' place, as older colleges are so easily seen as men's places". As they also noted, "starting from the fundamental English problem of needing a lot of light, we have provided big windows. But to prevent girls being too 'exposed', there is a separate external screen of timber members, which we hope will cut down the glare, obviate any sense of insecurity and prevent the casual eye from breaking too easily the 'skin' of the building. The timber screen is a kind of 'Vashmak' in untreated oak, pale grey when dry, brown when wet" (quoted, for example, in Vidotto). The mini-dressing rooms was seen as a means of shutting away 'a cascade of washing powder and stockings' while providing sound insulation from the corridor and pantry, while the rest of the room made as flexible as possible with its lack of fitted furniture. This planning has its origins in the Smithsons Appliance House' project of 1958 and more directly in their competition entry for Churchill College, Cambridge, of 1959. The use of beige and brown tones was a reaction to the bright colour of their 1950s exhibition work and, they suggested, provided a 'neutral' background for the occupants' own decorations while better admitting views of the grounds. The Garden Building repeated the square plan with chamfered corners of their Economist Group of buildings (Westminster, listed grade II*), yet is transitional between their major projects of the 1960s and a more gentle approach that considered buildings as a framework for their users' activities, the art of inhabitation 'that informs what they in 1982 termed the Shift'. This increased domesticity without loss of intellectual rigour is parallelled in the work of their friend and fellow founder of Team 10, Aldo van Eyck.
Philip Opher, Twentieth Century Oxford Architecture, Oxford, Heritage Tours, 1995, p.19 Daily Telegraph, 16 October 1968.
Alison and Peter smithson, The Shift, London, Architectural Monographs and Academy Editions, 1982, pp.66-7, 91-5.
Marco Vidotto, Alison and Peter smithson, Works and Projects, Barcelona, Gustavo Gili, 1997, pp.128-33.
Alison and Peter smithson, Signs of Occupancy, Pidgeon Audio Visual, PAV 793, 1979.
Alison and Peter smithson, The Pavilion and the Route', in Architectural Design, March 1965, pp.143-6.
Helena Webster, ed. Modernism without Rhetoric, London, Academy Editions, 1997, pp.64-71.
Listing NGR: SP5218105746