Catherine Hughes Building


The completion of the Catherine Hughes Building is the latest milestone in a decade long collaboration between Somerville College and NMLA and makes possible Somerville’s longstanding ambition to offer all its undergraduates a place to study, socialise and rest within the College’s central Oxford site.

In 2015, NMLA undertook a feasibility study to develop a forgotten corner of the College site known as the Penrose Service Yard. At its west end, the site fronts on to Walton Street and at its east the Fellows’ Garden and the Main Quad beyond. The financing of the project was reliant on delivering 68 bedrooms with ancillary spaces. Collaborating closely with the College and Council, NMLA proposed a massing strategy where the building presents to the street and the College quad as a 4-storey building and rises to 5 storeys at its centre. The upper corners of the top floor were then cut away to create articulated dormer rooms and to achieve an alignment between the proposal’s ‘shoulders’ and the eaves of the adjacent Penrose Building. 

The design recognises the College’s shifting context and the increasing prominence of Walton Street brought about by the development of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and the arrival of the new building for the Blavatnik School of Government by providing an active and community-facing street frontage to what was once the College’s back of house. Situated on the apex of the bend, the building mediates between the more residential scaled Jericho Conservation Area and the institutional setting of the Blavatnik  School and the Oxford University Press.

The building is broken down into three main volumes which step north (maintaining the locally loved Bedford School house and garden) and then south across the length of the site. A new paved pathway weaves its way west-east from Walton Street to the Fellows’ Garden, activating the leftover spaces between the new volumes and the adjacent Penrose building. This new connection shifts in scale and character, constricting at pinch-points and swelling to create a new courtyard whilst all the while providing episodic glimpses of college life, verdant spaces to rest and framed views into the Fellow’s Garden and the Chapel.

Fronting onto Walton Street, the building hosts a dedicated space for graduate study. Full-height windows provide a view into this space from the street and a new ‘shop-front’ to Somerville and offer rare glimpses into a collegiate space of academic study. Internally, bedrooms are arranged to maximise views up the street, to the new courtyard and the quad. A winding central corridor is periodically relieved by widenings with borrowed light, window seats and spaces with views to the outside.

Deep, hand-laid, corbelled brick reveals to the windows paired with projecting fins accentuate the fall of shadow across the façade and provide a sculptural quality to the brickwork. Internally, these deep walls create pockets for fitted wardrobes and shelving. The building’s CLT structure is exposed within every student bedroom and to the main entrance lobby to provide clues to the building’s construction.

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