Robert Stern called in to to end competition deadlock at Oxford University

Oxford University’s expansion is stalled by style wars

Robert Stern from Yale University has been parachuted into the midst of a prestigious competition for Oxford University because of  a “deadlock” over whether to chose a modern or classical architect.

The original shortlist for the £30 million Institute of Public Policy —  part of a wider £1.25 billion new university campus — featured Make and Dixon Jones, Wilkinson Eyre,  alongside traditionalist firms such as  Stanhope Gate and John Simpson & Partners.

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But the university was split between the Dixon Jones and John Simpson proposals and now hopes that Robert Stern who is the dean of Yale’s School of Architecture and describes himself as a “modern traditionalist”, may well be able to appease both sides — as well as the Russian oligarch believed to be funding the building.

“There was a feeling that Robert Stern could break the deadlock as he straddled both camps,” a source said.

The project to build a new university campus on the former site of Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary was meant to demonstrate the university’s ability to match the Ivy League by building a new campus using private money, the project is planned to be carried out over the next 20 years.

However,  it has made little progress since Rafael Viñoly was hired in 2005 to draw up a masterplan, the latest incarnation of which was described late last year by Cabe as a “wholly inadequate framework for development” due to lack of context and long-term thinking.

A public exhibition of the Institute of Public Policy proposals, due to be held next week, was cancelled earlier this week with no explanation.

Robert Stern has never built in the UK, but has masterminded the redevelopment of Yale and has designed many libraries, courthouses and university buildings across the United States as well as masterplanning the town of Celebration in Florida for the Walt Disney Company, and the regeneration of New York’s Times Square.

There is also concern about other aspects of the campus development with critics claiming the commercial direction of the architecture as a whole is “more suited to a business park”.

The university has launched a fundraising drive, headed by philanthropist Vivien Duffield, to pay for university expansion but Duffield has yet to commit to funding a new £180 million Humanities Building, designed by Bennetts Associates because of concerns over the design including an underground library.

“Vivien doesn’t feel this is the kind of architecture she wants to sponsor.”

A spokesperson for the Clore Duffield Foundation confirmed it had considered a donation towards the humanities building, but had not yet reached agreement. “No contribution has been confirmed to any part of the project,” they said.

A university spokesperson refused to discuss the competition for the Institute of Public Policy or the funding of the Humanities Building, saying: “The university is currently taking a conservative view of any commitments on major capital projects until the global crisis works through the economy.

“Raising money for the first buildings to go up on the site is under way, but no projects have been confirmed as definite.”

Robert Stern’s office said that under the terms of his contract with Oxford University he could not comment.

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