The design and layout of the new student accommodation for Somerville College was determined by its setting within the complex ancient lanes and boundaries of the University. The University of Oxford has been developing the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter on the site of the old Radcliffe Infirmary; the development will contain faculty buildings for Humanities and Social Sciences.
Somerville College occupies the whole southern boundary of the site and when the old hospital buildings were knocked down they exposed the north-facing flank wall of the college. This wall, exposed for the first time, was completely blank; the proximity of older hospital buildings meant that the college had previously faced their buildings away from the infirmary.
By exchanging land with the university, the college had just enough space to build a long, narrow development of student rooms against the blank wall. The parcel of land ceded by the university – at 6m wide by 175m long – was just wide enough to accommodate a long thin development, three storeys high, housing a single row of student rooms and a connecting passageway behind.
It was not possible to make individual entrances into the new building from the north; (the student rooms will, in time, connect back into the existing buildings in Somerville College as the phased development of the project progresses). As a result, the rooms are reached by tall staircase towers set at each end and overlook a new laneway to the north which connects Woodstock Road to Walton Street.
One remarkable opportunity of this project was to create one whole side of a new street. The architect divided the student accommodation into two long narrow buildings, creating a space between them which makes a new northern entrance into Somerville College, linking its garden quadrangle to a long framed view of the Radcliffe Observatory.
The architect has described the design of the street as “conceived in the terms of Pevsner’s analysis of the picturesque, episodic setting of Queen’s Lane in Oxford. Building elements are used to frame and terminate short vistas. As you move along the street you reach small public squares at the end of each vista, from each square new vistas open up. This allowed us to interweave new and old buildings in a way that creates lots of small dramas as you move through the city.”