The puzzle of Smithsons St Hilda, Oxford

November 26, 2010

  St Hilda’s Garden Building never failed to raise eyebrows from the day it was published and built. Smithsons reputation in this country meanwhile had its up and downs and is currently facing the final humiliation of the demolition of Robin Hood Garden housing in London.

Stirling took delight in doing summersaults and gymnastics with his dazzling display of form making and bursts of creativity, when questioned, criticized and taunted his short and sweet answer was a sign of  ‘two fingers’ and a ‘f*** off’. Stirling’s Florey building, built along the same river side is literally a few minutes walk from St Hilda and was built almost at the same time, but comparing these two buildings gives a fascinating insight into two very British creative mindsets, quirky yet brilliant.


One of the keys to understand this building to my mind is to look at client’s instruction and involvement. (Please enlarge by clicking on the scan below)


Smithsons could have chosen other locations for this building within the college site but dutifully decided not to close the view of the river for rest of the college at present or in future. They also attempted to create a service road at the back of the building, which could be extended to resolve the vehicular service for the future college growth without impacting on the green space.

Their preferred site was the space between Cherwell Hall (Wikinson’s Gothic mansion, 1879) and Wolfson Building (Richardson 1964), with tentative physical connections to each, formed using brick walls, timber frame and roof forming walkways. This sets the stage for a perpetual dance between the single mature copper beech standing close to the new building with a stretched arm twirling the building, dressed in an attire of see-through dress, embroidered with the lacework of greenery.

 Smithsons quickly arrived at forms by re-using ideas from Economist design. The floor plan was based on one of the towers. The concrete pre-cast posts, including the vertical recess/channel were also from Economist, which in modified form were also used in Robin Hood Lane as vertical sound baffle, although in both cases these were structurally not performing the implied load bearing/frame function.


It seems that right from day one Smithsons’ empathies were with this cash strapped girls college trying to make inroads in this well established ‘old boys’ network’. Anything remotely wasteful was to be shunned; answering the precise college requirements within the costs and design a building to bring a sense of coherence to the motley collection of college buildings was more important than adhering to any architectural philosophies, iconography or displays of egotism. This they achieved with great success but with a mischievous twist or two for their peers to resolve, who they fully expected will be watching and scratching their heads for some time to come.


This is exactly what followed. The indeterminate quality of elevations, floating timber oak frame work resting on concrete knuckles, precast concrete mullions masquerading as load bearing frames in front of load bearing cellular brick walls separating bedrooms behind, may have teased us all but there is no denying that the completed building remains calm and unpretentious and well and truly wedded to the site. The building fulfilled the brief requirements of bed layouts, acoustical privacy, short corridors, wash basins in mini-dressing rooms and pedantic insistence on clothing storage for each unit, which all came within the allocated costs.


Smithsons explanation for oak screen; “Starting from the fundamental English problem of needing a lot of light, we have provided big windows. But to prevent the girls being too ‘exposed’ (their psyche as well as person is exposed with much glass) there is a separate external screen of timber members, which we hope will cut down the glare, obviate any sense of insecurity, and prevent the casual eye from breaking too easily the ‘skin’ of the building. The timber screen is a kind of yashmak.”

The AD article calls it a ‘tudor yashmack’, a phrase difficult to improve on as at the time of designing St Hilda, holidays trips to Tunisia and fascination with Elizabethan black and white style is well recorded and Smithsons were fond and capable of playing architectural games.

A small ‘quip’ has also come to my notice. The building was definitely designed to have a front (three sides with windows) and a back (with London stock bricks). Smithsons were keen to emphasize this and decided to drop a big box of a lean-to roofed ‘Trunk room’ exactly the same size as the opening between the two brick panels, under the glazed cut out square forming the entrance. The box structure looks like a lid which has been unhinged from the building to rest on the ground.

This room blocks the entry by being bang in front of the main entrance, had a tenuous roof link, and defines the ritual of students arriving at the start of the term with trunks bursting at the seams and leaving empty suitcases in this shed to collect at the end of the year. There are two openings, one on each side of this room (which is now demolished) allowing entrance to the pedestrians approaching from the service area at the back. These openings have chamfered brick edges directing people towards the centrally placed entrance, highlighting the ‘pincer-movement’ of entry to avoid the Trunk Room. A little joke which obviously was not noticed or appreciated by recent architects who have dropped a rather mundane looking canopy where the room used to be.



For us to try to find the sources of inspiration, I feel, is a futile exercise for architects who have spent most of their life looking and studying a myriad of subjects in every corner of the world. However, I show the list of  inspirations from the AD article more as a game.

An article about this building in Architectural Design February 71 (photos and some information taken from this article) titled ‘The pursuit of ordinariness’ says that the building and room design is such that one is transported to the world of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs. Twiggy-winkle of which Alison Smithson has written so nostalgically. In Beatrix Potter’s interiors, she wrote in December 1967; “Objects and utensils in daily use are conveniently located, often on individual hooks and nails, and are all the ‘decorations’ the ‘simple’ spaces need , or in fact can take. Those things in secondary use or needing long term storage are in special storage cubicles whose forms define the house space proper – as well as being pleasant spaces in themselves. Here then, we find the basic necessities raised to a poetic level; the simple life well done.

This is in essence the percept of the whole modern movement in architecture, but it is only in the immediate post-war period that there have been architects, perhaps old enough, to stand off from theories sufficiently to be relaxed – and sophisticated about them in practice.”

5 Responses to “The puzzle of Smithsons St Hilda, Oxford”

  1. Matt Tempest Says:

    One of my favourite buildings. Slightly un-PC to suggest it, but it’s basically the Economist building, “feminised”, no?

    If you enlarge the picture of the plans, one room is dedicated to “sewing and ironing”. Reminds me a bit of the lift tower rooms in Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick, set aside for mens’ hobbies.

    Only 40 years ago, but a different era.

    • winslowhub Says:

      Is Economist one of your favourites? If that is the case (and it is definitely one of mine), are you suggesting that this is an ‘Economist’ in a skirt and lipstick? I am afraid that will be more of an insult to Smithsons than to the building which manages to stand its ground without needing any defence. Indeed 40 years is a long period, after all this was a girls college when built and the College Steward spent ages designing storage and the mock-ups of furniture and furnishings for girls in a very specific way. Girls were adamant that they also wanted baths for their use and this became part of the brief requirements.
      Yes, I noticed the ‘sewing and ironing’ room and I am certain Smithsons were under strict orders to fix ironing tables at a precise height, as I knew they were asked to provide irons with automatic cut-off switches. This was the nature of architect/client relationship.

  2. […] the windows of this (once) all ladies college act as a modesty screen (Peter Smithson called it a “kind of yashmak”)  that was influenced by English Tudor buildings and Tunisian window […]

  3. Nick Blake Says:

    A very curious building with that flimsy, now warped, oak screen being neither functional or attractive. I guess the pseud Smithsons, why are they so worshipped? would say the flimsyness intentionally shows its lack of purpose. Why design a very glazed building then partly cover it…..does get rid of surplus energy though. Look at Simon Thurleys clever analysis of the Smithsons on line.

    • winslowhub Says:

      I was unable to find the article you mention as I would like to read it. Knowing a little about Simon Thurleys views about Robin Hood Housing in London I can make some guesses.
      However, history seems to write itself after the dust has settled. I am some of Smithsons work would still be there. I hope you did read the text of my Blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: