Through a decade-long series of building and planning commissions, Níall McLaughlin Architects developed a research-based, integrated and anticipatory way of building within Oxford’s historic environment and architectural heritage. The project involves realising specific buildings as well as an overarching design strategy for the historic environment of Oxford.
Research for the Oxford Projects stems from a wider interest in architecture’s relationship with its multifarious contexts: historical, spatial, urban, architectural, social and political. Whilst this interest in context has its own long history, McLaughlin attempts to develop it further for the twenty-first century. From the late 1950s onwards, Western European and North American architects have developed contextual approaches – from the Italian Neorationalists to the peripheral Critical Regionalists – to relate new projects to the multilayered past of an existing site, which in turn shapes the form of a single building. McLaughlin engages with context in a way that extends beyond the single building to the experience of the city around it. Often, specific design features of his projects are not architecturally functional but serve to change the perception of the city.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner argued that the great contribution of medieval English urban design and planning was that it was not based on a prescriptive set of abstract principles, but on a series of specific case studies. His local, emotive and environmentally aware approach emphasised the visual aspect of planning decisions. McLaughlin closely researched and used Pevsner’s theory to inform his design approach, whereby ‘erecting a building’ and ‘building the city’ become one and the same intertwined process.