Zaha Hadid’s modernist library inspires shock and awe in Oxford

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Zaha Hadid’s modernist library inspires shock and awe in Oxford

In Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, any attempt to introduce shock-of-the-new architecture triggers dogfights between trads and mods. And so it was no surprise that when Zaha Hadid produced her sinuous steel-clad design for the new £11m library and archive building for the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, it was attacked. “Looks like a beached whale,” fumed one objector. “A giant ear trumpet,” said another. “No, a crashed airplane” – and so on.

Seen from Woodstock Road – calm, leafy, classic Inspector Morse territory – the steel form lolls like a glinting chrysalis between the centre’s two original 19th-century buildings. The centre’s south end, facing the college’s main buildings, flares out like a vast TV screen overlooking the garden.

Oxford’s planners were split down the middle over Hadid’s proposal. Those in favour argued that its design quality, and the centre’s desperate need for more library, archive and lecture space, overcame the statutory need to fit in with the Victorian buildings and green spaces in the conservation area around it. It took the chairman’s casting vote for the council to pass the design. []

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