St Antony’s College, Oxford, is one of the 44 colleges of Oxford Universities. Each of the oxford colleges functions as an independent, self-governing institution like a federal system (similar to that of the government in the United States). (University of Oxford, 2022) Conceived as an epicentre of international studies where students and experts worldwide can come together, live and study on the campus, St. Antony opened in 1950.

Hilda Besse building, one of the oldest buildings on the site, was listed as a Grade II building in 2009. Known for its distinct brutalist cum modernist characteristics, Purcell, UK recently refurbished it. Purcell is an architecture, masterplan and heritage consultancy firm based in the UK. One of its renovation works includes the refurbishment of Powell and Moya’s Blue Boar Quad.

‘The refurbishment of the Hilda Besse Building was recognised by the Oxford Preservation Trust as the best building conservation project in 2021, alongside Oxford’s Story Museum’ (University of Oxford, 2021)

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Hilda Besse_©howellkillickpartridgeamis.wordpress.com

Name of the building: The Hilda Besse Building, St Anthony’s College Oxford,
Location: Oxfordshire, southern England, UK
Architectural Firm: HPKA (Howell, Killick, Partridge, & Amis Architects)
Construction period: 1967-70
Renovation Firm: Purcell, UK
Renovation period: 2019 to 2021

The rectangular site of St Antony’s College has access roads on three sides, comprising 20 buildings. The building is known for its distinct architectural features and its material innovation. The recently renovated Hilda Besse building is one of the influential buildings on the site, having the capacity to host 500 students and 330 senior members (Rush, 2019). The home to social and academic spaces, senior and junior common rooms, the dining hall  therefore considered “the beating heart” of St. Antony’s. (Rush, 2018) 

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The Hilda Besse Building, St Anthony’s College Oxford_©reddit.com
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Buildings of St. Antony_©sant.ox.ac.uk

History of Hilda Besse

The building was commissioned from a donation made by Sir Antonian Besse of Aden. Named after the donor’s wife, Hilda, the building was designed by architect John Partridge of HKPA to provide a picture of the college. With Hilda Besse as one of his finest works, Partridge got elected a Royal Academician in 1980. The construction of the Hilda Besse took place from 1967 to 1970 and has been a vital institution structure. HKPA is known for its post-war style buildings, among which the Hilda Besse is a fine example, which is also famous for its fine application of concrete in a modern-traditional way. 

The building, accessible from all four sides, was planned with large halls similar to a traditional arrangement of spaces. These spaces are divided by a circulation space or a staircase, dividing the building into two halves. On the west side, the ground floor has a shaded walkway at its entrance. The roof plan follows a modular grid. Constructed of precast concrete unit panels and cornish aggregates, the building exhibits its structural motifs as an embellishment in both its interior and exterior spaces. The eyelid windows, set with precast concrete, allow a huge amount of light to the interiors. 

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st. antony ceiling plan_©howellkillickpartridgeamis.wordpress.com

Repair and Restoration

The Hilda Besse is a one-stop place for the students, with multiple services combined and brought into the structure. With over 50 years of use, the restoration team treated the building to fit for the next 50 years. The extensive repair and revitalisation took place in July 2019 for around 22 months, until the summer of 2021, exclusive of the time taken in the stakeholders’ planning, research and engagement. 

Being an actively functioning 50-year-old structure and, with little modifications made over the years, Hilda Besse reached its inefficient stage, failing to provide for the users. The existing issues were:

  1. spalling concrete fabric (as seen in the before-renovation picture),
  2. Thermal inefficiency 
  3. Inefficient services and insufficient spaces
  4. Spaces non-inclusive of its accessibility 
  5. One of the limitations was the exposed concrete frame, which left no space to hide service routes. 

Doff system, a stone cleaning system based on the heat from steam, was carried out before repairs took place. 

The Scheme

The refurbishment scheme concentrated on three major provisions; improvised facilities, accessibility and overall appearance (fabric) of the building. The new additions included a toilet for the physically challenged, a circulation route, and a lift.

  1. Reconfiguration of spaces (Opening up spaces in and around the building)
  2. Improved access to all the floors and spaces of the building complaint to the accessibility regulations
  3. Provide additional services 
  4. Repair of building fabric
  5. Provision of additional efficient lighting and energy sources.

Until the renovation process was completed and to meet the demands on the campus, temporary structures and services were set up. Besides the technical and architectural modifications made to the structure, Purcell’s main aim was to retain the post-war style of the building.

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Hilda Besse Building before restoration_©designingbuildings.co.uk
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The Hilda Besse Building exterior after restoration _©_Purcelluk.com

Spaces Configured

The approach to spaces was based on three levels. One is the primary spaces with a constant function whose features were to be retained and enhanced for a better life, such as the dining room and common rooms. Two, gathering and circulation spaces with not-so-traditionally distinct features. Three, ancillary and support spaces, to be worked on updated facilities and services addressing its specific problems. 

The buttery or the dining hall was roofed with timber pyramids and supported by precast concrete panels, topped with a roof light. These roof lights, previously finished with mastic asphalts, were redone with the same finish, as it was the best-suited roof treatment given the foot traffic the roof faces. This was carried out with waterproofing of the roof, ensuring a life of another 60 years.  

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The Buttery(before)_©Purcelluk.com
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The newly refurbished Buttery_©Purcelluk.com
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St. Antonys_©masticasphaltcouncil.co.uk
St. Antonys_©Purcelluk.com

Concluding

Among the various others, the challenge was in imitating the original concrete finish. The awards won for the refurbishment project include the RIBA Architecture Award, the Concrete Society Award and the designation Grade II under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation) Act (Rush, 2018). The judging panel of the Conservation Award found the roof replacement and addition of circular windows bringing light into the dining hall to be impressive (University of Oxford, 2021)

“The high levels of natural light permitted into these spaces, as well as repeated design and structural motifs, emphasise the building’s post-war architecture.”

(Marshall, 2019)

References:

  • University of Oxford (2022). What is an Oxford college? | University of Oxford. [online] www.ox.ac.uk. Available at: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/colleges/introducing-colleges
  • Purcell (2022). Hilda Besse, St Antony’s College, Oxford. [online] Purcell. Available at: https://www.purcelluk.com/projects/st-antonys-college-hilda-besse-building/ [Accessed 30 Dec. 2022]. 
  • University of Oxford (2015). Buildings in College. [online] St Antony’s College. Available at: https://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/current-members/accommodation/buildings-college [Accessed 30 Dec. 2022].
  • Graduate study at Oxford (2022). St Antony’s College: A Tour. [online] www.youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nS34EB1tqp4 [Accessed 30 Dec. 2022].
  • University of Oxford (2021). News. [online] St Antony’s College. Available at: https://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/about/news/oxford-preservation-trust-award-st-antony%E2%80%99s [Accessed 1 Jan. 2023].
  • Manchesterhistory.net. (2021). Hilda Besse House, St Antony’s College, Oxford. [online] Available at: https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1960/hildabesse.html
  • Marshall, J. (2019). Purcell cleared for refurbishment of HKPA’s Oxford college. [online] Building Design. Available at: https://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/purcell-cleared-for-refurbishment-of-hkpas-oxford-college/5099991.article [Accessed 1 Jan. 2023].
  • Rush, M. (2018). The Antonian 2019 by St Antony’s College – Issuu. [online] issuu.com. Available at: https://issuu.com/stantscollege/docs/antonian_newsletter_2018 [Accessed 1 Jan. 2023].
  • Rush, M. (2019). The Antonian 2019 by St Antony’s College – Issuu. [online] issuu.com. Available at: https://issuu.com/stantscollege/docs/antonian_2019_web  [Accessed 1 Jan. 2023].
  • Conservation, I. of H.B. (2021). Conserving the Hilda Besse Building. [online] www.designingbuildings.co.uk. Available at: https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Conserving_the_Hilda_Besse_Building  [Accessed 1 Jan. 2023]. 
  • Aves, J. (2018). History and Theory Presentation – Hilda Besse Building. [online] prezi.com. Available at: https://prezi.com/p/kmbcjfk4m7ky/history-and-theory-presentation-hilda-besse-building/
  • admin (2020). Restoring the Hilda Besse Building to its Former Glory. [online] Mastic Asphalt Council. Available at: https://masticasphaltcouncil.co.uk/news/restoring-the-hilda-besse-building-to-its-former-glory/

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