Westgate, Oxford

The Westgate project, a joint venture between Land Securities and The Crown estate, is a large and complex urban regeneration scheme that substantially reconfigured almost six acres of land in the heart of Oxford.

Dixon Jones worked on the part of the project that related to the existing Westgate building and how it related to the historic centre of Oxford. Co-ordinated by BDP, the larger project was divided between four architects, the remaining three dealing with the new building elements to the south of the existing building.

The old Westgate shopping centre was not much loved and did little to contribute to its important and sensitive location which involved Bonn Square and the way the square developed into Queen Street and New Road. There are significant strategic views down both streets that centre in perspective on the elevation to the shopping centre.

The proposal was for a new elevation to Bonn Square that took the form of an independent ‘wall’, an architectural element in its own right. This wall curves to take the eye round the corner from Queen Street to New Road and vice versa. The wall is constructed of random rubble stone, trimmed with ashlar edging, a material combination that makes reference to the local Lutyens elevation of Campion Hall. Within the wall are double height shop windows and an extended rectangular opening that forms the main entrance to the whole enlarged shopping centre. The challenge was to combine a contextual idea with one that gives sufficient prominence to the major retail function.

Leading away from this main entrance is the arcade that connects Bonn Square to the first of the new public spaces within the enlarged shopping centre. The new arcade occupies the same zone as the old one but completely restyles its appearance. Circular roof lights within a barrel vault give daylight to an arcade with double storey glazed shop fronts and a patterned floor. The intention was to let the imagery of the goods in the shop come forward and take priority. Between each shop front there is a vertical strip of LED lights that sets up a pattern of verticals generated in perspective by reflections in the glazing.

The BDP masterplan locates two squares within the length of the shopping centre. The first of these, called Middle Square, lies within the territory of the Dixon Jones proposals. It is the moment that the single storey retail develops into two storeys as the land falls away from the centre of Oxford. One side of the square is occupied by what is known as the ‘Object Building’. This is expressed outwards to Castle Street as a semi-circular form that helps to take the eye round the bend in Castle Street. The Object Building also serves to define the two points of connection for pedestrian cross routes. Opposite the Object Building is its counterpart known as the Companion Building.

At the New Road end of the Bonn Street Wall there is a plain brick tower. This serves to hold the end of the wall visually as the streetscape gets confused around the County Headquarters building. Seen down Queen Street, the wall continues the general plane of the façades of the shop fronts. From the other direction there is no such controlling sense of enclosure, this is remedied by the way the tower gives stability to the end of the wall.

At the top of the tower is a lantern. This was a joint project involving the artist Daniela Schönbächler and the architects. The idea was to have a sculptural object that responds to the way sunlight travels around the location. The Bonn Street wall faces north and a glass structure on the tower automatically has light shining through it as the sun moves through the day. The lantern has thirteen sides and is glazed with a variety of glass types including degrees of translucence and colour. The lantern is lit at night but only in as much as it can be made to glow, brighter at the bottom than the top. The library remains in its original location. The Castle Street appearance is very much of its time, a kind of roughshod Brutalism which is just coming back into fashion. The project adds a couple of windows and some seating at ground level, otherwise this elevation remains largely unchanged.

Image 1 courtesy of Nick Caville / BDP

Images 5 & 6 courtesy of Gareth Gardner

Images 2 & 7 courtesy of Lorenz Ehrismann / Daniela Schönbächler