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Digital Studio, Oxford School of Architecture

  • Architect:
    Niall McLaughlin Architects
  • Award Type:
    Regional Award 2003
  • Location: Overseas
Digital Studio, Oxford School of Architecture


Overseas Under €300,000

One of the problems facing architectural education in the digital age is technology itself, in so far as it encourages home working resulting in decentralised and isolated students. This winning competition entry started from the simple premise that "good education depends on physical proximity between students". The solution is a highly original and beautiful concept involving a cluster of plain steel digital, lockable desks, large enough to allow groups to gather around. The studio is acoustically attenuate and animated by an array of slender ceiling hung fins accompanied by a tangle of service cabling privatising and personalising each desk. This important educational prototype promoting a communal work and learn environment is already a resounding success with student and tutor alike.

Architect's Comment
The School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University held an architectural competition to redesign the top floor of the 1960 s system built block which is used for design studios. They had used a fire protection budget and expanded it slightly to open up an opportunity to do something more than the statutory upgrade which was required. The budget was extremely tight but the client was very ambitious in their brief. They invited the entrants to rethink the principles of architectural education in the digital age.

While digital technology allows for home working and suggests more decentralised, fragmented workplaces, this practice took the view that good architectural education depends on physical proximity between students. People learn from each other almost by osmosis when they work in the studio together. In Oxford the students had started drifting away from the shared studio culture and working by themselves at home.

Instead of designing a building for the competition we designed a desk. We describe it as a laptop and it folds down so that it can be locked. The computer is securely contained in the base and the screen is bolted through the structure.

Matters of overt architectural style are a problematic issue when you are working with architecture students. Anything with an overt formal expression might seem to preempt their own design investigations. Anything modish might be embarrassing in a couple of years (or months!) time. We looked at the work of the sculptor Donald Judd to help us design objects that had the minimum formal elaboration.

The studio opened for the start of this academic semester. In functional terms the acoustic baffles work very well. You can hold crits, tutorials and conversations at the same time in the space. We are watching closely to see whether it changes the pattern of work in the studio. The success of the project will lie, not in its visual manifestation, but in whether it changes the patterns and culture of studio work in the school. If it does then we hope that the clean digital studio will be partnered by a dirty workshop space directly below where students can deal with real materials and test the weight of their digital speculations.

Clients Comment
The aim for the project was to redefine working practices in schools of architecture in the 21st century. Out went the old system of closed and introverted teaching rooms, and in came a multi-use networked space in which CAD teaching, design tutorials and review crits can all happen simultaneously within the same space. At an astonishingly low budget of around £500 per square metre, the architects produced a highly original reworking of an unprepossessing space in a 1960s system-built block.

The scheme is not only visually beautiful, but has been a resounding success. It is already much loved and heavily used by students, and from a tutor s perspective, works superbly. Students group together in spontaneous clusters around the desks, chatting and learning from each other outside formal teaching sessions.

There is no better way for anyone to study. It is quite simply the best teaching space that I have encountered in any architectural school anywhere in the world. We now need more spaces of this kind, and many more computers, but it is a brilliant first step. You should see it when some of the desktops are opened up on crit days as pinup surfaces, with other students working at the same time on the permanent workstations. The buzz is fantastic, and it is a glorious space just to be in.