Wright & Wright Architects have completed a decade-long redevelopment and conservation programme at St John’s College, Oxford. The culmination of this project sees the restoration and remodelling of two of Oxford’s most important historic libraries, an environmental upgrade to a unique sequence of Grade I listed spaces, and the conservation of what has been described as the most important Baroque building in the UK.

Primary purpose
The primary purpose of the redevelopment programme at St John’s has been to expand library and study space at the College, thereby improving facilities for students, staff and fellows. The opening of Wright & Wright’s award-winning new Library and Study Centre in 2019 radically improved the student experience with the creation of dedicated new library space for students for the first time in the College’s history. In turn this has enabled the restoration and conservation of the College’s historic libraries, and a successful creative fusion of old and new that seamlessly knits together contemporary architecture and Grade I listed buildings. Additionally, through a range of environmental control strategies, the project decreases the carbon footprint of the College and serves as an exemplar of sustainability.

For many years St John’s College has been at the forefront of efforts at the University of Oxford to decarbonise its buildings. Wright & Wright’s Library and Study Centre was truly pioneering at the time of its design, and subsequent post-occupancy evaluation has demonstrated how the building is performing exceptionally well in terms of energy consumption and carbon emissions. Now, together with carefully targeted thermal upgrade measures in the historic library buildings as part of the recently completed final phase, St John’s College continues to lead the way as the University looks to achieve net zero carbon by 2035.

A challenge for any historic institution is always how to balance new facilities within a sensitive existing setting. Successive phases of expansion and development at St John’s had drawn students away from the historic core of the College, including the extraordinary 17th century Canterbury Quadrangle, leaving these spaces in danger of only being frequented by tourists. In 2019, Wright & Wright’s Library and Study Centre introduced an outstanding contemporary building into the heart of the College without impinging on its rich built heritage and famous gardens. Now, the completion of the final phase reveals in full how successfully the practice has consolidated these connections between the College’s historic core and its more recent expansion. As a result, the libraries and beautiful Canterbury Quadrangle are once again at the heart of college life reinvigorating the meaning and unique character of historic spaces for new generations to enjoy.

Throughout their ten-year redevelopment programme at St John’s, Wright & Wright fostered collaborations with a wide range of project contributors – from artists and craftspeople, to specialist conservators and skilled contractors. There were ‘eureka’ moments along the way – in particular the realisation that an overlooked hidden passage could become the crucial link that tied the whole scheme together. Other exciting discoveries included hidden wall paintings which were carefully conserved, and even graffiti on a stained glass panel by ‘Christopher Wren‘ – the architect’s father, who studied at St John’s College.

Student experience
Reflecting on the culmination of the project, Sandy Wright (Founding Partner at Wright & Wright Architects) said: “The completion of our ten-year-long programme of work at St John’s College marks the end of an extraordinary project, and the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the history of the College. St John’s have been a remarkable and far-sighted client – carefully balancing their responsibilities as custodians of historic buildings and spaces with a willingness to embrace contemporary architecture and a pioneering approach to environmental sustainability. Our work at St John’s College has focused on improving the student experience and preserving the function and meaning of historic buildings, through an approach that develops a built tradition of craft and making, and enhances the spirit of the place.”

Professor Sue Black CBE OBE FRS, Baroness Black of Strome, President of St John’s College said: “Education and research are at the centre of St John’s and our libraries lie at the heart of college life. We are delighted that, with the completion of work on the Old and Laudian libraries, and the restoration of the Canterbury Quadrangle, we can again offer all members of College, as well as researchers and academic visitors, access to the best study resources and the most welcoming spaces to support their work.”