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The Ruskin School of Art

Part 1 Project 2009
Paloma Gormley
University of Cambridge | UK
The existing building on the proposed site, a 1970’s office block in the centre of Oxford, is rearranged materially and programmatically to accommodate an art school and interdisciplinary research centre. The deep plan, heavily serviced, concrete structure is laid bare and with the introduction of large light wells and a north facing factory roof houses the student’s studios. The materials stripped from the building are re-used to create two new structural and programmatic cores to the building. The brick is dyed black and used in large panels (modern bricks cannot be reclaimed individually) as a herringbone cladding; the horizontal bands of windows are re-installed at 90°; and the concrete rubble is used as aggregate.

The new lightweight façade serves several functions. The steel frame carries the loads from the cantilevered floor slabs to the roof, which acts as a transfer beam bringing the loads back to the existing column grid. The introduction of a PCM between the glazing panels gives it a thermal storage capacity while still allowing a diffuse light into the studios. The individually controllable solar shades protect the building from solar gain, allow the students to regulate light conditions and create a warm coat for the building during the winter.

The ground floor, currently a gym, converts into an interdisciplinary research centre. Open to the public it would contain an auditorium, cinema (within the old swimming pool) and a café with an art gallery and library below.

The approach to the scheme reflects that of the Ruskin School; making do and getting by. It is a balance of pragmatism, improvisation and invention. The existing building is a resource; in its current state for an architect and in its proposed state for the art student. The art student creates and adapts their space within the school, this scheme creates and adapts space within and around the existing architecture. The building is designed to be responsive to user, environment and city.

The location of the school and the public elements of the programme are key to reintegrating a geographically and socially estranged department to the university and city.

Paloma Gormley

Making do and getting by

The Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

‘Making do and getting by’ is a project for the new Ruskin School of Art in Oxford re-using an unpromising four storey deep plan office building in the centre of Oxford. The title, taken from Richard Wentworth’s (head of the Ruskin) ongoing photographic document charting the changing fortunes of the city through its small adjustments, refers to an architecture of resourcefulness and bricolage – of cutting, fixing and adding with minimal environmental impact yet maximizing openness and potential. Through a process of inventory and material re-organisation, the physical fabric of the original building has been transformed into a vibrant school for meeting and making. At the macro scale, the pre-fabricated elements of the building envelope are removed and reconfigured to create new public and creative spaces. The transformative quality also guides the detail elements with environmentally responsive façade of felt, foil and phase changing fat. The new studios, workshops, library, café, seminar spaces occupy interconnect through cuts in the original concrete, redirecting former uses (the swimming pool, for example, is becomes a tiered lecture theatre). The new art school is wrapped in a skin of recycled brick panels, windows and a new timber framed translucent/transparent wall blinking towards the dreaming spires.

Making do and getting by is a critical and pragmatic attitude to minimizing the material and energy consumption of this new art school. Metaphorically, it also stitches together the contingency of contemporary art practice and the natural behaviour of the city. Its transformation appears unfinished but these spaces, part mundane concrete structure, part alchemical celebration are mutable – offering the user the possibility of multiple uses and future change.

Unlike its august institutional neighbours, the new Ruskin building is ambiguous: dense and compact but strangely informal and playful, and like the art practice it houses, it is culturally and contextually provocative. It displays a rare commitment to re-making our world from what we already have – a prescient attitude for critical and original architecture.


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