The 2016 Architecture Foundation Masterclass: Brief

The Masterclass will be staged in Oxford at James Stirling's Florey Building with studios led by Go Hasegawa, 6a, Kersten Geers, Emanuel Christ, Clancy Moore and Luetjens Padmanabhan

Designed in 1966, James Stirling’s Florey Building belongs to a short period during which the European university became a subject of bold typological experiment.  Among its near contemporaries were such projects as:


The University of East Anglia by Denys Lasdun (1962)

The Free University, Berlin by Candilis, Josic, Woods and Schiedhelm (1963)

The University Centre, Urbino by Giancarlo De Carlo (1965)

Potteries Thinkbelt by Cedric Price (1966)


In abandoning the received imagery of the university, each of these schemes sought to acknowledge the unprecedented societal changes – notably in the areas of class and gender relationships - that were then transforming the culture of higher education.  Indeed, with varying degrees of earnestness, these were projects that presented themselves as incubators for revolution – a point to which Stirling’s Black Book wryly alludes through the inclusion of a photograph of a student room in the Florey Building adorned with a giant Soviet flag.

 The break with the architecture of earlier university buildings lay, above all, in a newfound commitment to openness.  Each of these projects attempted to expand the interaction of individuals within the university community and to establish a more open relationship between the university and society at large.  It is no coincidence that an engagement with landscape is common to the group.

 The break is felt particularly forcefully in Oxford where the dominant, monastically-derived college typology is defined by qualities of fortification, compartmentalisation and hierarchy.  Positioned on the edge of the city’s medieval core, the Florey Building makes reference to that world through the adoption of a grassed quad and a stair tower that reads as an abstracted version of a traditional college gate.  However, in its transparency, openness to the landscape and its intended – if ultimately unrealised - public accessibility at ground level, the building’s spatial sensibility represents a radical departure from tradition.

 Historic Oxford is also far from the only source of its imagery. Russian constructivism, Aalto’s Baker House, Georgian crescents and recent developments in British sculpture are just some of the associations that the building invites.  Another photograph in the Black Book even stresses a Latin American allegiance through the introduction of a background of collaged palm trees.

 As Claire Zimmerman has observed: “The singularity of the Florey Building is directly connected to the multiplicity of references it contains: it is like but not the same as any one of them.  This logic of approximation resulted in the paradox of a unique multi-referential object, one whose character rests on simultaneous appropriation of and resistance to a multiplicity of other objects”1

 The buildings commissioned by Oxford colleges in the intervening decades have been characterised by a resurgence of conservatism.  Institutional anxieties following the events of May ’68 may have represented one immediate cause. Certainly the hostile reception that the Florey Building received on its completion did much to damage the case for modern architecture in the city.  The increasing importance placed on university buildings serving as out-of-term conference facilities has also undoubtedly been a factor.

 On the fiftieth anniversary of the Florey Building’s design, the 2016 Architecture Foundation Masterclass sets out to explore how the architecture of the university might rediscover the spirit of formal and social adventure that Stirling’s project so powerfully embodies.   Each of the six studios will develop a speculative proposal for a new university building to be sited, like the Florey Building, on the edge of Oxford’s medieval core.

 The Oxford that the studios will address is not, however, the city that stands today but rather the idealised version depicted in an axonometric map dating from 1675.  One of forty engravings that feature in David Loggan’s illustrated guide to Oxford, Oxonia Illustrata. this map captures the city at a moment when it retained a clear definition between dense built fabric (composed predominantly of college buildings) and an encompassing, agricultural periphery. 


 Above 1675 map from Oxonia Illustrata, divided into six sectors

We have divided Loggan’s map into six, broadly square, sectors and assigned one to each of the studios.  Each sector presents a meeting between city and landscape, where the studio will develop its project.  The methodology bears comparison with that of Roma Interrotta, the speculative reconfiguration of Rome’s Nolli Plan undertaken in 1977 by twelve teams of architects, among them one headed by Stirling.  (In his reinvention of Trastevere, the architect redeploys projects from his back catalogue, including the Florey Building, relocated to the banks of the Tiber).

As was the case with Roma Interrotta, the participating architects in the Masterclass will be given the opportunity to pursue their own concerns while ultimately contributing towards a collective endeavour.  Participation in each studio will be decided by lottery on the evening of September 7th.  (If you want to swap your studio allocation with another attendee feel free!) However, the aim is that the Masterclass operates on the basis of a culture of collective conversation and mutual critique rather than as six siloed studios.

Each studio will present their project over the course of five pages of common format, the first being a reworked version of their sector of Loggan’s map.  The resultant 30 pages will be displayed on tables at The Barbican on the evening of September 12th and subsequently compiled to form a publication.

1. James Stirling’s Real Function by Claire Zimmerman in Oase 79: The Architecture of James Stirling 1964-1992.  A non-Dogmatic Accumulation of Formal Knowledge


Studio descriptions 

Lütjens Padmanabhan

Our Studio looks upon David Loggan’s pre-modern Oxford map as an optimistic version of urban sprawl, a utopian example of a city in which architecture and landscape interlace. Within this context James Stirling’s Florey Building can be understood as the first of a series of autonomous architectural fragments that engage with Oxford’s urban landscape.

Our interest in Stirling’s work is triggered by the question of the relationship between the individual and the whole. The Florey Building neither submits to the ideals of the Gothic nor is it based on compositional principles of Classicism or Modernism. Its architecture is generated by an overabundance of formally distinct individual elements. Simple in its order and inept in its contextualism, the building gains richness and openness through the surprising and invigorating assembly of its parts.

 For us, architectural autonomy means not letting architecture rest on a single, formulaic idea, but rather basing it on a number of large and small ideas, conceptions that complement or contradict each other – an anthology of ideas. We believe in an architecture in which each element has its own value. We plead for an architecture which attains openness through diversity. This is what our studio will explore.

 Clancy Moore

 Loggan’s map presents Oxford as an ideal projection, unified and perfect.  Its realisation - while perhaps no less ideal - is imperfect: a fabric constructed of fragments in time; a suitably pluralistic landscape with each discrete building, the author of its own logic; a very practical utopia. 

The interplay of perfect projection and imperfect realisation defines both the architect’s practice and the means by which we collectively make cities.  The gap between these two states describes an iterative conversation that, in our minds, produces an essential character, one that by its very nature is fragmentary.  We see a resonance too with Dalibor Vesely’s observation that our contemporary pluralistic culture is a paradoxical outcome of the ideal of mathematical universality, which can be achieved only piecemeal.  The University therefore forms the perfect context to reflect on this condition.

On first approaching the Leicester Engineering Building Colin Rowe reputedly exclaimed "What a beautiful toy!".  The description could apply to its brother (of three), the Florey with its similar arrangement of elements, bits in space, autonomous yet simultaneously contingent one upon another.  These buildings were famously described in precisely and sparely edited axonometric drawings.   Representations concerned with relationships.    In each a figure emerged from the composition of their various parts. 

We set our workshop in these spaces.  Caught between ideal and real, between found and imposed, between drawing and experience we seek to understand the essential by considering the relational.

Christ and Gantenbein

Architecture is in a constant process of transformation, interpretation, appropriation, understanding or misunderstanding, appreciation or destruction, use and abuse. This not only applies to the pure existence of a building, but also to its intellectual conception: The design process itself is a transformation of knowledge and images into a new form, and no ex-nihilo creation. Every idea is based on forerunners, stored as memories within the repertoire which we call culture. They are then transformed under concrete circumstances, into a unique, contemporary architecture.

This design process doesn't stop when a building is finally built, as it will change during its lifetime, and as the world around it is changing. Hadrian’s mausoleum was turned into a fortress, then into a palace and thus found its iconic form; Loos’ wrapping of a house by a layer of slim rooms created the Villa Karma, Syracuse’s cathedral results from a Greek temple with a closed cella and an open peristyle, which was filled up and now defines a closed communal space. The complexity and richness of these buildings could not have been thought by a single architect, but only through a long line of development and intervention, during which each architect played a specific role.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi shows the popular life in Rome, in and on the magnificent ancient ruins. He depicts the results of a transformation process in which the historical architecture was used in a very pragmatic and economical way. For Roma Interrotta, James Stirling collaged his own unbuilt buildings onto the Nolli plan in a strongly contextual way. Inspired by the graphical methods and radicalism of Piranesi, and by Stirling’s geometric contextualism we will counter the nostalgic atmosphere which the untouchable university courtyards convey and will transform them into unique pieces of contemporary architecture. We will test the possible transformation of these historical conglomerates to house the university of the future, in order to allow Oxford to stay a place of excellence which pays tribute to its past while always being forward-thinking. Drawing on their typological qualities, openness, connectivity, and publicness will be the new attributes of the petrified university buildings.



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