Exeter College formally opens Cohen Quad

On the weekend of Saturday 18th March and Sunday 19th March 2017, Exeter College formally opened Cohen Quad, its new premises on Walton Street. Named for the parents of Exeter College alumnus Sir Ronald Cohen, this new quadrangle, less than 10 minutes’ walk from the College’s historic site on Turl Street, transforms the College and allows it to provide 90 additional study-bedrooms for students, teaching and performance space, a reading room and climate-controlled storage for the College’s special collections, and a hub for social learning.

Rector Professor Sir Rick Trainor said: “The opening of Cohen Quad marks a major step forward for Exeter College as it moves into its eighth century. One of Oxford’s major new buildings of the 21st century, Cohen Quad provides, in a beautiful environment designed by architect Alison Brooks, a wide range of services for all members of the Exeter College community, including students, fellows, staff and alumni. Cohen Quad, to which more than 4,500 alumni and friends have contributed through a financial gift, indicates the vibrancy of Exeter College and is a springboard for its ambitious plans for the future.”

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Professor Sir Rick Trainor addresses guests

Under the leadership of former Rector Dame Frances Cairncross, Exeter College set out in 2007 a strategy to provide world class education within a collegiate environment: that is, a place where students and academics live and work alongside each other, interacting with each other both inside and outside the classroom, within inspiring buildings and spaces. The addition of Cohen Quad is the biggest single physical expansion of the College since its earliest years when it moved to its Turl Street site in 1315. It maintains a 700-year tradition of students and fellows across academic disciplines living and studying alongside each other and benefitting from each other’s knowledge and experience.

Cohen Quad provides study-bedrooms in the centre of Oxford and enables the College to guarantee up to three years’ accommodation for its undergraduate students.  This will have a significant impact on encouraging students to apply to Exeter College and the University of Oxford. It will help to alleviate pressure on Oxford’s private housing market and will provide students with pristine and affordable accommodation designed around the needs of modern students, including 30-week rather than 52-week lets. Cohen Quad therefore makes an Oxford education both more affordable and more enjoyable.

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An example of an en-suite study-bedroom

In addition to the study-bedrooms for students, Cohen Quad also has three “family kitchens” in which students can socialise and prepare and eat meals together, an auditorium for concerts, lectures and dramatic performances, a social and learning hub known as the Learning Commons, a café, teaching and seminar rooms, fellows’ teaching sets, a reading room and climate-controlled storage space for the College’s archives and special collections, a student common room, and two external quadrangles. All Exeter students, fellows and staff are welcome to use the space and students from other colleges who take tutorials with Exeter fellows will also be taught on site.

In 2011, Exeter College selected Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) to design the new site following an extensive design competition. The first female architect and principal director of an architectural practice to work for an Oxford college, Alison Brooks’ design was a reinterpretation of the traditional collegiate quadrangle, with a hub for social learning at its heart. Drawing on the design influences within the local neighbourhood of Jericho, the history of both Exeter College and Ruskin College (the latter, now concentrated in Headington, previously occupied the site of Cohen Quad), and the needs of 21st century scholars, ABA have delivered a building that is stunning, uplifting, and inspiring.

Alison Brooks said: “Cohen Quad has exceeded our expectations. Even though we model in 3D, there are some things that have really flowered through being built and I think the proportions of the space are wonderful and feel better and more lofty than even we imagined.”

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Alison Brooks addresses guests

As part of the celebrations the Rector paid tribute to the donors who together gave £18m towards the creation of Cohen Quad and a total of £46m to Exeter College in the period running up to and immediately following the 700th anniversary of the College’s foundation, which it marked in 2014. A large board hangs at Cohen Quad, listing the many people who gave to Exeter College between 2006 and 2016 and who helped make Cohen Quad possible.

The lead donor to the new quadrangle is Sir Ronald Cohen (1964, PPE) and it is in memory of his parents that Cohen Quad is named. The dedication as you walk into the quadrangle reads “In honour of Michael and Sonia Cohen, who knew that education was the one thing that could not be taken away from you”.

Sir Ronald said: “It is at Exeter College that I really learned to think. Education is the one possession that cannot be taken away and I am lucky that I can help future generations of Exeter College students to live in a collegiate environment where their minds are best nurtured and inspired.  The stunning design by Alison Brooks will greatly enhance our College’s life.

“It is a building where I think your soul soars, and at the same time it has a sense of community. When you walk into the Learning Commons you can’t help but smile. I think this building is proof that architecture can affect the way you feel, and hence the way you think.”

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Sir Ronald Cohen and his wife Sharon at the formal opening of Cohen Quad

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The dedication to Sir Ronald’s parents in the entrance hall of Cohen Quad

Students moved into Cohen Quad on Sunday 8th January ahead of the start of Hilary Term. They are delighted with the building; many regularly bring friends and family members around to see the new facilities for themselves. Isabella Neil is in her final year of an English degree at Exeter College. She said: “Anyone can see that Cohen Quad is a beautiful addition to Exeter College, but unless you get the chance to live here, it is less obvious how great an impact the new building will have on students’ everyday lives. The extra living space that Cohen Quad offers means an end to Exeter students desperately scrambling to find private housing that is ‘adequate’. We now have the option to avoid 52-week rents, hefty deposits and administration fees, and potentially difficult landlords.

“Arriving in Cohen Quad, it became immediately clear that all the photos and computer-generated renderings don’t do the building justice and, as a finalist, I can’t imagine a better place to live than Cohen Quad. Having a place to live that also has everything we need – spaces to work, eat, socialise, cook, and relax – less than 10 minutes away from the College’s Turl Street site is amazing, and makes a huge difference in what is a pretty stressful year. Everything about Cohen Quad’s design feels well thought through, and the building feels tailor-made to support Exeter’s students and staff. We are just settling in at the moment, but it is clear to see that Cohen is going to be a huge part of college life at Exeter.”

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The donor board at Cohen Quad

In addition to Exeter College students, five Exeter College fellows have also moved into their teaching rooms at Cohen Quad and a Junior Dean, responsible for discipline and welfare, has also moved into the Quad. The fellows in residence teach classics, Spanish, English, history, and chemistry.

Professor Christina de Bellaigue, Fellow in Modern History, moved into her teaching rooms at Cohen Quad in January. She said: “As one of the Fellows who has just moved into Cohen Quad, I want to say thank you to everyone who made it possible. It’s an inspiring building to work and teach in and the views are fantastic. The building is going to bring such a new lease of life to the College. I love walking around and seeing the students at work in the Learning Commons or chatting over coffee, and I can’t wait to use the Special Collections housed on site to teach some of them.”

The celebration events over 18th and 19th March enabled donors who gave to Exeter College between 2006 and 2016 to visit Cohen Quad and experience this remarkable building for themselves. They had the opportunity to hear from the architect Alison Brooks and to take a tour of the Quad, as well as talk to current students about what it’s like to live and study in Cohen Quad.

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Guests attend a lecture on James Joyce by Fellow in English Jeri Johnson

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Exeter College Choir sings at the formal opening

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Guests could explore Cohen Quad or take a tour with current students

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Many guests attended a closing ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre

Students Visit Cohen Quad

On 4th December Deputy Bursar Gez Wells conducted a tour of Cohen Quad for a small group of current students. Before entering the building site itself, the visitors were given an overview of the vision behind the new quadrangle by Hannah Constantine of Alison Brooks Architects.

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Architect Hannah Constantine goes through the plans for Cohen Quad
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The Deputy Bursar leads a site tour for students

During the tour, the students were shown every space at Cohen Quad, from the Fellows’ and Junior Dean’s sets high up on the fourth floor down to the archive and reading room in the basement, as well as all the bedrooms, teaching rooms, and study and relaxation spaces in between.

Laura Cheftel (2014, Philosophy & Modern Languages and JCR President-elect) said:

Laura cropped“I am so glad to have had the opportunity to see Cohen Quad. What struck me the most was the sheer size of it! It was really great to be able to walk around and understand how all the different spaces flow on from one another. I found it so impressive that the goal of effortless functionality justifies every detail. The design is an absolute feat, and yet I couldn’t imagine it any other way; it’s truly seamless.

“I love imagining the ways students will live there. Despite what might be said about its lack of history compared to other university buildings, the fact Cohen Quad is new makes it exciting and inspiring; through being such an innovative piece of architecture, it is a work of art that in itself will be intellectually stimulating. The concept of the Learning Commons is a brilliant one; study, comfort, coffee and company finally come together in such a beautiful space! I can see the amphitheatre steps as a casual lunch-spot, as well as a place for pieces of student drama in the evenings.”

Tobias Tan (2014, Theology DPhil) was particularly struck by the deceptive size of the building, saying:

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“Although the original facade of the Ruskin building is relatively modest (in size), the building opens up into a vast complex. A substantial amount has been squeezed into a fairly small site (which seems appropriate and hardly surprising, given the scarcity of land in inner-city Oxford).”

He admitted that it was “difficult to judge the final aesthetic appeal from the mere concrete skeleton” but confirmed that “One could, however, gain an appreciation for how the spaces flowed into one another, which did seem quite pleasing. The abundance of natural light in most spaces will no doubt be highly appreciated.”

On a practical note, Tobias added that “The concrete separators between rooms may seem unremarkable, but I think it’s probably one of the most important features to limit noise in a semi-communal living environment. The noise associated with the doorways (how loudly the doors bang shut, and whether the doorways will be insulated against noise) will, I suspect, be crucial!  I am looking forward to seeing [the building] finished in wood and stone.”

Jake Donald (2014, Modern Languages) was able to join the tour briefly before a tutorial back at Turl Street.  He commented:Jake cropped

“It’s a beautiful construction, and everyone should be incredibly excited to live in it. The Quad itself looks set to be absolutely stunning, and I think that the facilities on the ground and basement floors – the archive room, the theatre and the cafe – will all be incredible spaces.”

The College intends to carry out several more hard-hat tours during Hilary and Trinity terms 2016, offering many more students, staff and Fellows the opportunity to explore Cohen Quad ahead of its completion in late summer 2016.

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The amphitheatre steps of the South Quad, referred to by Laura Cheftel (above)
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The Dakota Cafe, looking out onto the steps of the South Quad

Views From The Top

The Alumni and Development Office team were fortunate to visit Cohen Quadrangle on a gloriously sunny autumn day. Here are some of our photographs from the top to brighten your Wednesday.

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Looking north from the top of Cohen Quad – you can see the Radcliffe Observatory and the new Blavatnik School of Government in the distance
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The top floor of Cohen Quadrangle with its distinctive curved roof
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This is the highest part of the original Edwardian facade of Ruskin College
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View! The large building to the left of the photo is the Oxford University Press on Walton Street
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It seems a shame to fill the walls in when there’s a view like this! – but you can imagine how lovely North Oxford will look out of these dormer windows on the third floor
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This space will be the Senior Common Room. To the right of the photo there will be rooms for teaching and study. Behind where the photographer is standing to take this picture there will be a roof garden
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Looking across the top of the site from east to west
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A fully-fitted bathroom pod being lowered into the second floor at Cohen Quad
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The Exeter Alumni and Development Office team at Cohen Quad

At the Apex: Topping Out at Cohen Quad

On Saturday 10 October 2015, Exeter held a ‘topping out’ ceremony at Cohen Quadrangle, a milestone event during the development of the College’s new campus.

Topping out is a symbolic builders’ rite, traditionally held when the last beam (or its equivalent) is installed at the highest point of a building under construction.  For Exeter, this meant a ceremony to mark the completion of the exterior construction of the site, an opportunity to reflect on our progress so far, and a chance to look forward to the completion of Cohen Quadrangle.

A group of 45 hardy supporters climbed to the third floor of the building site on Walton Street where the ceremony took place. Speeches were given by Terry Spraggett (Business Unit Director of Public Sector at construction company Mace), Alison Brooks (Cohen Quad’s architect), Rector Sir Rick Trainor and lead benefactor to the project, Sir Ronald Cohen.

Alison Brooks spoke about the significance of the topping out ceremony, demonstrating how Exeter’s 2009 vision, and the architectural idea that sprang from it, “is now tangible as form and space”.

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Alison Brooks speaks about her architectural design and vision

The Rector then had the opportunity to thank all those involved in the project, from the architects and construction team to the college staff and the many benefactors whose toil and support have made Cohen Quad a reality.

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The Rector addresses the guests

Sir Ronald, in honour of whose parents the new quadrangle is named, spoke about his delight that Exeter would at last have enough space to accommodate another full year-group of undergraduates, as well as significant additional space for teaching and study. He praised Exeter for its bold decision to purchase the former Ruskin College site and thanked former Rector, Dame Frances Cairncross, for her vision and perseverance in getting the project off the ground. He finished by recognising the efforts of current Rector Sir Rick Trainor to take this project to completion and acknowledged the exciting challenge he will have leading the integration of Cohen Quadrangle with Exeter’s historic site on Turl Street.

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Sir Ronald Cohen speaks about the impact Cohen Quad will have on Exeter and on the University of Oxford

Dressed in full protection gear, the Rector and Sir Ronald then each tightened a large bolt at one of the highest points of the building to symbolise the completion of external construction.

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Sir Ronald tightens the final bolt at Cohen Quadrangle

Afterwards guests enjoyed a glass of Ambriel, an English sparkling wine produced in Sussex by Exeter alumnus Charles Outhwaite (1984, Modern History) and his wife Wendy, themselves both benefactors to Cohen Quadrangle.

Guests had the opportunity to walk around the third floor to get a sense of the scale of the project. They were even given a first glimpse of Cohen Quad’s pod bathrooms, already in place on the residential floors. All those present expressed their delight at the progress of the quad’s construction and their excitement to see it completed in less than a year’s time.

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Guests explore the site – here they are standing where two bedrooms will be. Note the two bathroom pods behind them
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Inside a fully-fitted bathroom pod

Also at the ceremony were current Exeter students, several of whom will enter the ballot to live at Cohen Quad during the 2016-17 academic year. Harry Williams (2014, Economics and Management), JCR Accommodation Officer, celebrated the fact that Exeter can now offer accommodation (and in such a central location) for three years to those undergraduates who want it.

He said, “It seems like the architects have made a real effort to make this development so much more than just a living space. I’m excited that it’s going to have that “Oxford quad” feel and that there’ll be spaces to socialise and study. Most of all, speaking as a student who has been following this development for the past few months, it was rewarding to see the renders that had been sent to us start to come to life.”

Sir Ronald was presented with a ceremonial engraved spanner to commemorate the occasion. A second spanner was presented to the Rector and will go on permanent display in the new building.

More photos of the event are available to view here.

Our next formal ceremony will be the official opening of Cohen Quadrangle!

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Ceremonial spanner commemorating the occasion

Supporter Stories: Neil and Debra Blair

Neil Blair came up to Exeter to read Jurisprudence in 1986.  He worked hard and was acutely aware from the very start of the privilege of living and working in such a beautiful and historic place.  He feels that, in many ways, being at Exeter launched his professional career and he looks back on his student days with gratitude and affection.

Now a literary agent, Neil’s days are filled with books and writing.  He has spent time over the last few years visiting some of Exeter’s ancient printed books and manuscripts and understanding their varied provenance.  He admits to being amazed that a 30,000-strong collection of rare books could have lain under his feet in the basement of the College Library without his knowledge while he was a student, and he fully supports Exeter’s aims to make these volumes more accessible to all.

Two years ago, Neil and his wife Debra chose to make a donation to support the construction of the climate-controlled archive space and reading room at Cohen Quadrangle.  They believe strongly in opening up access to ancient collections so that students, scholars and visitors alike can learn more about these treasures.  They are excited about what this storage and study area will mean for Exeter’s special collections and archives.

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Neil Blair at Cohen Quadrangle.

“I have always been passionate about literature, something which grew throughout my time as a student at Exeter and which is fundamental to my professional life.  So when I learnt about the opportunity to restore Exeter’s most precious books and move them to the best possible storage space on the new quadrangle, I was delighted to help.  I am excited to think that these amazing collections can be preserved for the future and made better available to more people for study and research,” he said.

Neil, Debra and their friends visited Cohen Quad during construction in the summer of 2015 and were the first visitors to enter the basement archive section under construction.  Standing on bare concrete with builders working all around, the group were amazed to think that in eighteen months’ time the first precious books would have a permanent home in this very spot!

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Neil and Debra Blair survey the construction of the special collections storage area at Cohen Quad.
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Basement plan of Cohen Quad with the rolling stacks for Exeter’s special collections visible at the top left-hand corner of the image.

To learn more about Exeter’s special collections, follow the College’s Librarian’s blog and read our previous post on this site.

Sounds of the 70s

A group of eager Exonians from 1970-74 visited Cohen Quad on a sunny Saturday as part of their Grand Gaudy (reunion event) at Exeter College.

The site visit followed introductory talks by Deputy Bursar Gez Wells and Hannah Constantine of Alison Brooks Architects on the vision behind the new campus and an explanation of the current stage of construction.

The group was able to walk around the site, moving from the basement to the ground-floor Learning Commons and up to the newly-laid first floor, where construction of the first student bedroom was under way.

All present enjoyed the opportunity to see the site first-hand and to get a sense of the scale of the building. It must also be said that they tackled their steel-capped boots, high-vis jackets, safety glasses, gloves and hard hats with characteristic Exonian jollity!

We are always delighted to take alumni and Friends of Exeter on hard-hat tours of the site; please email development@exeter.ox.ac.uk if you would like to know more.

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Deputy Bursar Gez Wells describes the vision behind Cohen Quadrangle
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Putting on PPE (Note to Oxonians: this is ‘personal protection equipment’, not ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’!)
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From a vantage point at the side of the site, architect Hannah Constantine explains the current stage of construction
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Martin (1972, Physics) and Rosy Smith hear about the Learning Commons, which will be right where they are standing
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Andrew Popham (1974, Mathematics) surveying the development of the Learning Commons
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The group give us their seal of approval!

Supporter Stories: Henry Brown

Thank you!

Cohen Quad has been made possible thanks to the support of hundreds of people giving hundreds of donations, both large and small.  We would like to celebrate our donors and so over the next few months we will be posting ‘supporter stories’ interspersed with our building updates, introducing just some of the many generous people who have got us this far.  Our first supporter story comes from Henry Brown:

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Henry Brown at Cohen Quad, June 2015

Henry Brown came up to Exeter in 1967 to read Chemistry.  His accommodation experience was fairly typical of that of a 1960s undergraduate: a year on staircase 9 overlooking the Broad, a year in staircase 3 next to the Hall and two years in private lodgings in North Oxford.

Henry and his wife Jane were early supporters of the Cohen Quad project, choosing to direct their support towards the ‘Hanging Room’ in the Learning Commons, a spacious seminar room which appears suspended in mid-air.

He is excited by the additional accommodation and teaching space that the new quadrangle affords, saying “I always felt Exeter was disadvantaged by its early foundation on a site which left little room for expansion (though Dr Maddicott’s recent book, Founders and Fellowship, shows how very much was achieved on the Turl Street site).  The former Ruskin College site gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change this, and I was inspired by Frances Cairncross’s determination that we should seize it to mark the 700th anniversary.  It was right to think big and to build the best possible facilities for the future.”

Henry is looking forward to seeing how Exeter’s Turl and Walton Street sites will work together, “revolving around each other like the earth and the moon, so that all college members will get the benefit of both.”  He feels that Cohen Quad’s multi-purpose rooms will fit well with the informal way that students operate today.

He is also delighted that Exeter will have a presence on Walton Street in particular: “Oxford is a supremely walkable university.  Cohen Quad will get Exeter students out of the central area (in the 1960s, only scientists or those in search of female undergraduates went very far).  Walton Street itself is on the way up with the Blavatnik School of Government almost completed and the other developments on the site of what was the Radcliffe Infirmary.  It’s great that Exeter should have a presence there.”

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Henry surveys the Hanging Room under construction
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Architect’s impression of the Hanging Room (top left-hand corner of the picture)