Cohen Quad, Exeter College, Oxford, UK

Alison Brooks Architects
Date Built
Completion 2017
Walton Street
This building on Walton Street in Oxford's Jericho district started life in 1912 as Ruskin College.  In 2007 Ruskin College moved out and the building passed into the hands of Exeter College.  Only two facades of the original Edwardian building remain.  They have been incorporated into a new quad for Exeter College that has been named in honour of Sir Ronald Cohen's parents, Michael and Sonia Cohen.  Sir Ronald Cohen contributed £9m towards the cost of the project.

Ruskin was a "working-men's college" founded by two Americans, Charles A Beard and Walter Vrooman, with the goal of offering full-time residential courses for working men.  John Ruskin was persuaded to offer the project his blessing and allow his name to be used in its title.

Above and below are foundation stones laid on February 8, 1912.  The one above by G. W Bowerman MP and the one below by a Miss Giles, a long standing member of staff.  The original building was designed by Joseph and Smithem.  It was a steel framed structure clad in pinkish-red brick and Bath stone with a mansard rook covered with Welsh slate.  The original plan was to create a typical Oxford college quad but the 1912 building only managed 40% of that aim.  In 1936, 1964 and 1982 additional buildings were added to the site to provide a dining hall, lecture rooms additional student rooms and a larger library.  After Ruskin moved out Exeter College took possession of it in 2010.  In 2013 it was Grade II Listed by English Heritage.

On December 11, 2013, the Oxford Mail ran a story by Oliver Evans with the headline "Controversial plans for former Ruskin building approved".  The article goes on to explain that, "... PLANS to demolish the former Jericho home of Ruskin College, keeping the Walton Street facade, were approved last night. Exeter College won permission from Oxford City Council’s west area planning committee despite pleas from residents to reject the controversial scheme.  The plans will see all but the 1913 facade demolished for 90 student rooms and teaching facilities in a quadrangle design, in a move that would increase total floor space by 39 per cent.  South Jericho Residents’ Association’s Mary Keen said while the return of students was to be welcomed, the design was too ambitious and too tall.   She said: “This plan tries to put a quart into a pint pot.”  Ruskin College, which caters for adult students without previous formal education, moved to Dunstan Road, Old Headington, last year after selling the Walton Street site to Exeter.

The building is currently empty.  Oxford Civic Society vice-president Tony Joyce objected at the meeting, saying the “unique building in terms of the history of the development of working men’s education” needs “very special attention”.  But Exeter College bursar William Jensen said its Turl Street home only accommodates 147 of its 320 students and the plan is for an “exceptional building”.  Council member Colin Cook said the scheme will free up private housing currently used by Exeter students, adding: “This building will provide public benefit and the efficient use of land.”  But fellow member Jean Fooks said at Oxford Town Hall: “We don’t want to repeat the mistake of letting our need for student housing outweigh the need for other considerations.”  Elise Benjamin said the scheme is too large and will stand out too much.  English Heritage also objected but the plan was passed by six votes to three.  Although the application was approved, it will now have to go to the Government for listed building consent."
  Clearly approval for the building to go ahead was indeed forthcoming.

The architect's website says that, "... The new quad will house undergraduate and graduate living accommodation for 100 students, a lecture hall, seminar rooms, social learning spaces, archive, café, roof terraces, offices and fellows’ accommodation.  Student rooms and fellows studies are enclosed by patterned stainless steel that folds across wall and roof surfaces, sitting on a stone clad ‘base’ that houses the quads’ public spaces." 


Images from an earlier stage in the construction.