A look back at some of our project partner's social media posts featuring our designs in 2014
Part 2 of Luke Hughes' reflection on how the requirements for Oxford colleges has changed in the last 25 years
Read Part 1 here
The truth is that universities in general and colleges in particular have grown into being in direct and fierce competition; they are under pressure to ensure their facilities and amenities support the ‘institutional’ brand since poor architecture or interiors have a direct influence on student take-up and future revenue. In other words, the students (and their fee-paying parents) have become more discerning customers. Consequently, universities are no longer just academic institutions but also brands; architecture, with its attendant furniture, plays a huge part in this role, either for universities to assert their values and traditions or to update their image.
The Lincoln chair, Oakeshott Room, Lincoln College
Implications for Architecture
At the time there was precious little available on the market would suit the hybrid interior landscapes; what might work in a Gothic Revival dining hall (like Merton) or an Arts & Crafts one (like Newnham College) would be unlikely to work in a modern one (like St Anne’s, St Catharine’s or the Maplethorpe Building at St Hugh’s). And ‘work’ means not only look appropriate, be easy to handle by the staff and capable of sustaining the inevitable bumps and scrapes without looking tatty within a few years.
New College dining hall
Dining Halls clearly needed tables that could fold and or be reconfigured to allow for buffet receptions, wedding parties, theatrical or musical events. They also need stacking chairs (rather than benches) for conference delegates, especially those in smart skirts and tights who are less enthusiastic about either splinters or climbing over the tables. Grey polypropylene chairs in such settings are less likely to generate the highest potential hire fees.
Pressure on the readers’ spaces in the various university and faculty libraries put corresponding pressure on the individual colleges to provide more readers’ spaces with better lighting, air handling, seating and desks. Many of the college libraries had not been updated since the early part of the 20th century, if at all.
The Old Clore Library, University Church of St Mary the Virgin
The tradition of accommodation on college staircases with 10 or 12 rooms meant that any renovation scheme tended to deal with only one or two staircases at a time and since the quantities of furniture required are quite small, suppliers of bulk mass-produced furniture no longer had such a competitive advantage over smaller, better-made pieces from smaller workshops. In any case, the colleges felt they should afford better furniture, especially that was consciously designed to match the architecture. Christ Church, for example, has accommodation buildings that are neo-gothic (Meadow), neo-classical (Peck Quad) and modernist (Blue Boar). Standard catalogues can hardly cope with such a mix.
Lecture theatres and multi-purpose conference rooms are not only helpful during the academic terms but are critical to attracting residential conferences. The best designed (such as the TS Elliot Theatre at Merton) were the result of painstaking research by the college bursars about how best to provide not only an attractive theatre that can be adjusted to suit teaching, music and drama but also to integrate a set of meeting and break-out rooms so any visiting conference can be completely self-contained. Audio-visual presentation and video-conferencing was in its infancy in 1990 but is now a major design factor.
TS Eliot Theatre, Merton College
There has been one central idea behind Luke Hughes & Company’s approach - that in any quality building, the connection between architecture and furniture should be seamless, creating a sense of ‘rightness’ either functionally or aesthetically. Most buildings cannot function without the furniture, yet inappropriate furniture can grossly undermine great architecture. In our view, furniture should embellish the space, not embarrass it.
Equally, because of technological changes in small-scale production, tailor-made furniture can (through efficient manufacture and thoughtful design) be quite as competitive as comparable standard products; bespoke product also allow client to secure precisely the level of distinction they need to project.
We are often asked why do we prefer to design for 50-80 year life expectancy when most institutional furniture is designed for 10-15 years? There are sound commercial reasons. 23% of the cost of new furniture goes on direct and indirect taxes (VAT, PAYE, national insurance, stamp duty, vehicle excise, corporation tax, insurance, climate change levy, rates etc) and 45% goes on sales and marketing. Only 12% goes on the raw materials and the ‘craft’ element, the rest on design and overheads. At least 70% of the cost is therefore not being reflected in the quality of the product. The financial logic is inescapable: purchase cheap furniture every 10 -15 years you will end up paying four or five times what you might spend if, like Merton, you pay attention to life-time value rather than immediate cost.
Equally, there are ecological factors for designing for long life-expectancy: the longer a building and its furniture stay relevant, the longer the carbon stays locked up; the longer carbon stays locked up, the less contribution to CO2 emissions. Long life = locked up carbon; it’s as simple as that. We owe it to the planet.
Proposed New College extension by Caroe Architects with song school furniture by Luke Hughes®
It is all very uncertain. With the digital world, the death-knell has been sounded for books yet libraries have never been so popular. Video-conferencing will never alter the need to gather in congenial settings. There were no laptops 25 years ago and even when power and data changed the way cable-routes were accommodated, no one envisaged the changes enabled by wi-fi, or the reduction of power requirement from long-life batteries. What is certain is that, after nearly 800 years, the colleges will remain, with all their traditions of architectural splendor.
The choice of furniture will still be what helps to make those buildings elegant, efficient and inhabitable.