23 October 2023

The Blavatnik School
is a ‘stunning’ and
‘dazzling addition to
Oxford’s architecture’

The Blavatnik School of Government is an award-winning building in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Blavatnik School of Government is an award-winning building in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter in Oxford. I was writing on this blog yesterday about Sir Michael Craig-Martin’s sculpture ‘Fountain Pen’ (2019), which was commissioned by the Blavatnik School of Government to celebrate the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. But the building itself is also well worth appreciating as a beautiful work of 21st century architecture.

The school is Europe’s first major school of public policy and is part of Oxford’s Social Sciences Division. It was founded in 2010 following a £75 million donation from the Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik, supported by £26 million from the University of Oxford.

Although the school stands in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, the main entrance is on Walton Street, where it stands between the former Saint Paul’s Church, a Greek revival church built in 1836, and Somerville College on either side and across the street from the Oxford University Press across the street.

The purpose-built home of the Blavatnik School of Government is an award-winning building developed by the internationally renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron. The Oxford Mail described it as a ‘dazzling addition to Oxford’s iconic architecture,’ while other reports have hailed it as a stunning new addition to Oxford’s skyline.

The architects Herzog & de Meuron say they designed the building to promote open discussion, interaction and collaboration and that the design represents the values of openness, collaboration and transparency that the school says are key to its mission of improving public policy.

‘It’s about democracy, so it’s circular, political transparency, so it’s glass, and Oxford, so there’s stone,’ the RIBA Journal said.

‘Clearly the concept of government and the school’s role in articulating this was a key part of the design,’ the journal Building Design commented.

‘Stepping back from the street, its proportions rhyme with its neighbours, the wafer-thin concrete slabs hover between delicate glass leaves, while its spiralling interior is one of the most uplifting spaces built in Oxford in a century,’ the Guardian observed.

Unlike other Oxford college buildings and despite the reference to it, there is no courtyard. In its place is an internal central foyer space that rises up and flows like a ribbon unfurling through the building’s five storeys.

The building’s circular shape is akin to government buildings around the world but also resonates with some of Oxford’s most iconic buildings, such as the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre.

There is access to natural light and air everywhere in the building, and it has the capacity to host up to up to 550 students, faculty, staff and guests. The ‘Window to the World’ above the entrance is the largest double-glazed single pane of glass in Europe, measuring 10.5 metres x 3.2 metres.

The Inamori Forum, at the heart of the building, is inspired by the idea of openness, communication and transparency and connects all the floors together.

‘Inside, the building is quite simply breathtaking,’ according to the RIBA Judges. ‘It is one of those rare moments in architecture when the spirit soars. This is a modern cathedral of learning that at the same time stimulates, soothes and excites … It is a truly inspirational piece of design and one so fitting for its purpose.’

‘The interior looks like an unspooled film, recalling the spiralling ramps of New York’s Guggenheim but with a pleasing irregularity and offset circular skylights,’ the Financial Times reported. ‘Arranged around a circular atrium, it’s a little dizzying, airy and enjoyable.’

The building is controlled by a combination of systems and technology that helps minimise its environmental impact. The building is taller than Carfax Tower in the centre of Oxford.

The former Saint Paul’s Church reflected in the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The plans for the building and the site initially created opposition from local residents in the Jericho district. David Freud, proprietor of the café in the former Saint Paul’s Church, opposed the plans due to the size of the building compared to Saint Paul’s. At a public meeting in Saint Barnabas Church, Jericho, in spring 2013, the building was described as ‘a concrete marshmallow.’

Building work began in September 2013 and as the work progressed it was described as ‘the latest striking building nearing completion in Oxford.’ It was completed in November 2015, and the school became operational by the end of the year. It was officially opened by the Duke of Cambridge in May 2016.

The building was shortlisted for the 2016 RIBA Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture in 2016, and received an RIBA National Award, RIBA South Client of the Year and RIBA South Award that year, and the Oxford Preservation Trust plaque in the New Building category.

The Blavatnik School of Government is widely considered one of the most prestigious schools for public policy. It was founded in 2011, when Professor Ngaire Woods was named the first Dean of the School. Her research focuses on global economic governance, the challenges of globalization, global development, and the role of international institutions.

The school admitted its first students in 2012. The school’s flagship programme is the Master of Public Policy (MPP), an intensive one-year graduate degree that prepares students for a career in public service. The school also offers a DPhil in Public Policy, a three-year full-time research degree, and a range of short courses for senior professionals and practitioners on policy challenges.

Professor Bo Rothstein resigned from the Blavatnik school in protest at Leonard Blavatnik’s donation to Donald Trump (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Apart from the controversy surrounding the Blavatnik school and the planning and development stage, the school also faced public and political criticism when Professor Bo Rothstein resigned as Professor of Government and Public Policy in 2017.

He resigned in protest at a donation of $1 million to Donald Trump’s Inaugural Committee by Leonard Blavatnik, one of the largest contributors to the school. Professor Rothstein, who has done considerable research on the quality of political institutions, welfare politics and corruption, said the actions of the Trump administration run contrary to all that he has worked for.

A spokesperson for Blavatnik told the Guardian that his gift was for the committee that has been responsible for organising US presidential inaugurations since 1901. But his donations to Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert Museum have also been criticised because of his links to the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The dean of the school, Professor Ngaire Woods, expressed her disappointment, saying Blavatnik’s only donation was to Trump’s Inaugural Committee.

Several months after hesignation, Professor Rothstein complained he was no longer being allocated office space, students, or academic tasks by the school. He later said he had been ‘excommunicated’ and banned from accessing the building, although both the school and the university denied these claims.

Bo Rothstein is a Swedish political scientist and a contributor to Swedish public debate about politics and academic freedom. He holds the August Röhss Chair in Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, and has received the Swedish Association of University Teachers’ prize for academic freedom.

His father was an Austrian-born Jew who fled from Germany to Sweden in 1939. His paternal grandparents, Rosa and Samuel Rothstein, were murdered by the Germans in Chełmno in 1942; his maternal grandparents came to Sweden ca 1910 from Ukraine and Lithuania.

Professor Sir Michael Craig-Martin, who designed the sculpture ‘Fountain Pen’ (2019) in front of the school, has described the Blavatnik School of Government as a ‘real forum of ideas.’

The sculptor notes that, in the absence of public money for the arts, ‘many institutions are dependent on philanthropy from very wealthy individuals.’ He adds that the school is a ‘wonderful and important institution’ that brings together people from across the globe.

‘There are few things more important in our modern, fractured world than having young people come together, and then go out into the world and maybe in 20, 30 or 40 years, those relationships they made in Oxford will have a positive significance,’ the Dublin-born sculptor says.

The Dublin-born sculptor Sir Michael Craig-Martin describes the Blavatnik School as a ‘real forum of ideas’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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