A building for Earth Sciences at Oxford

Hugh Pearman

One's mental image of Oxford – the tourist image, inevitably - is usually of the colleges, seldom of the academic departments. There is a historic reason for this: at one time almost all teaching was done in the hermetic worlds of the colleges themselves, which had relatively little to do with each other. Centrally-based from medieval times, private fiefdoms behind walls and quads, they came to define the city's layout in such a way that even later industrialisation could not usurp them. Pan-University faculty and department buildings arrived centuries later, and transformed the way teaching was done. In particular, the older collegiate universities such as Oxford acquired "science sites" where the rapidly developing newer disciplines could build the laboratory and lecture-room space that the colleges could no longer provide individually. These sites were of course outside the ancient centres, even if they were not very far outside. In Oxford's case, the Science Area lies broadly between the old centre and the University parks, set behind the adjacent High Victorian Natural History and Pitt Rivers museums. A jumble of buildings resulted, accelerating in numbers and scale from the late 19th all through the 20th and early 21st centuries. It is notable that the central Oxford conservation area ends at the road just before most of the science buildings. This is a different, and increasingly important, Oxford.

The Department of Earth Sciences is part of this concentration of scientific experimentation and learning. Its new building gives it a much more public face than it had previously, and this is appropriate for the increasing importance of what it teaches. Across the spectrum of the sciences, this is the case: research, whether pure or "applied" in the old and increasingly irrelevant distinction, is now perceived more than ever as vital for the economic wellbeing of nations, attracting large grants. The buildings of science departments used to be relatively humdrum compared with those of humanities or the colleges themselves. As a guide to Oxford's architecture disparagingly put it in 1999: "The buildings that make up the Oxford Science Area are mainly 20th century and are largely of a disappointing architectural calibre." In the 21st, that started to change, and the change is accelerating. Close to the Earth Sciences building, the large Chemistry Research Building (RMJM, 2004) and Biochemistry Building (Hawkins/Brown, 2008) showed the way things were going: big, glossy, self-assertive, affluent-feeling.

Compared to these, Earth Sciences is a somewhat smaller affair. But the same conditions apply, though the process and outcome is rather different. What was once known as Geology is now a discipline which at one extreme has more in common with physics, using such costly and precise equipment as mass spectrometers, and requiring laboratories isolated from the earth's magnetic field or from the influence of metals. At the other end of the scale, staff and students still go out and hit rocks with hammers. The fossil record is plainly one important strand of the work here, but Earth Sciences are also economically vital: the world of mineral commodities and earthquake prediction, the behaviour of the oceans and of other planets, for instance, are all part of the picture. So a previously tucked-away department reached the point where it could not only bring together and improve its accommodation and technology, but also give itself a public face.

There is a lot more to this department, then, than lumps of rock. But be assured that they know their rocks intimately. This is one reason why the cladding of the main wing is Clipsham stone rather than the more usual Bath stone. Both have been used historically in Oxford: but the geologists in the department know that the structure of today's beds of Bath stone is much less dense and more friable than has historically been the case. Clipsham is tougher. Similarly, the department was well placed to advise on the groundwater boreholes that help give the building its low energy consumption. But beyond such pragmatic decisions, and given architecture's enduring love affair with stone, it seems only natural that a geological narrative should have partly driven the appearance of the building. The "narrative wall", a stratified part-relief composition running from the street elevation, along the easterly façade, and on into the atrium of the main wing, brought designers and dons together and is a symbol of the work that goes on here.

This element of the building's design is what transcends function and neighbourliness, and – while having an ostensible didactic use – serves as the department's visual signature. The competition for this project was under way as Wilkinson Eyre was completing its National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, clad in local slate. They had developed a technique of bonding the stone with precast concrete panels: could this be employed to provide something richer for Earth Sciences? At first there was a thought of somehow using the evocative and colourful detritus of the department's rock-crushing exercises – possibly even behind glass, like the coloured sands of the Isle of Wight's Alum Bay, traditionally sold layered in glass tubes as souvenirs of the Isle of Wight. But it turned out that the quantities involved were too small, and this fanciful notion turned into something more realistic, and visually stronger. The narrative wall is a way of expressing the banded appearance of a horizontal modern building – strip of transparent glazing alternating with strip of solid or opaque spandrel panels. Here the spandrel bands become sedimentary/metamorphic layers of different Jurassic limestones, dominating the façade, with the recessive glazing strips peeping through. The design was abstracted from real geological examples, complete with "inclusions" of different stone. The task then was to apply an ordering system to natural irregularity, such that the panels could be of a limited number of types. It looks more complex than it is: in fact there are six stone shapes, frequently 'handed', so making 12 variations in all. Glazing comes in a similarly limited number of variations. This was a geometric exercise, if you like an exercise in abstract pattern-making. The stone pieces were then factory-bonded to concrete façade units.

This is an extract from Hugh Pearman's critical piece 'An architectural appreciation ' which first appeared in the book Tectonics: a building for Earth Sciences at Oxford (Black Dog Publishing, 2011).