Exeter College, Oxford

Exeter College Library

Renewing one of George Gilbert Scott's most accomplished works at the University of Oxford, this project combines a sensitive restoration programme with considered improvements to the library’s study spaces and accessibility.


2019 First Prize in Invited Competition

The library was constructed in 1857 by George Gilbert Scott, one of a number of his works at Exeter College. The Grade II listed neo-gothic building was built as a two-storey range with an adjoining lower annexe in an ‘L’ formation around the college’s Rectors Garden. It sits next to the 17th Century walls of Convocation House, the Grade I listed historic court room of the Bodleian Library, separated only by a sliver of ground between buttresses. 

The key to unlocking the tight spaces of the existing library is a modest single-storey block – the Link block. Tucked between the party wall of Convocation House and the two wings of the library, the Link block has undergone many alterations over the past two centuries, with little original fabric remaining. What is presently a garden store and windowless strong room was a pivotal opportunity for the design team to transform the library’s circulation. By occupying this space and the gap between the Bodleian’s buttresses, we have created a new entrance to both wings of the library and new staircase and lift, making the library fully accessible.  The new lift shaft will be hidden behind an existing stair turret. A further new entrance and stair at the north end of the annex add new emergency exits and allow flexible movement through the building.

Steel beams, added as reinforcement to the range floor in the 19th century, will be replaced with a new hidden structure, allowing the original ceiling design to be fully revealed. 

The library was significantly altered throughout the last century, with many changes obscuring the original beauty of Gilbert Scott’s design. With no construction drawings to work from, careful investigation of the building’s fabric and study of Gilbert Scott’s wider works informed the design proposals. Reflecting Scott’s approach to controlling light, the 1950s roof lights in the annex will be replaced by clerestory windows, as in the St Pancras ticket hall. 

The annex is split by a mezzanine floor that bisects Gilbert Scott’s gothic tracery, resulting in an uninviting lower level. Our proposals restore the windows to their full height and insert a new timber mezzanine like a bespoke piece of joinery across half the width of the annex, designed to echo the library’s original bookcases. This intervention returns the annex to a single volume, improving the quality and number of reading spaces.

Using prefabricated hardwood laminated panels allows for structural interventions, including a lift shaft and the new 14m cantilevered mezzanine to be partially pre-constructed with minimum on-site assembly. 

Bookcases on the range’s first floor will be constructed to conceal a deployable fire curtain system without disrupting the historic interior.  Existing exposed services will be re-routed and hidden beneath the plinths of the bookshelves in significant upgrades to the building’s services, environmental comfort, and performance. 

The material palette compliments the craftsmanship of the original building. Alongside extensive use of beech and oak, cast iron panels will clad the new lift shaft. Celebrating several stained glass windows created by Exeter alumni William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, our proposals introduce reeded glass screens and artists’ installations in the new circulation spaces. 

"This is a vital project for Exeter College: it was essential for us to identify the best team. Nex won us over with a combination of talent, insight and rigour, and we look forward to working with them as we repair, restore and renew the Library for future generations."

Sir Rick Trainor, Rector of Exeter College, University of Oxford

Exeter College Library
Exeter College, Oxford
June 2019
Oxford, UK
£12.25 Million
Alan DempseyJoe DentWilson LopesJames FosterJinGyeong Ryu
Project Manager: Ridge Structural Engineer: Webb Yates Heritage Consultant: Donald Insall Landscape: Todd Longstaffe Gowan Services Engineer: Laurence Owen Lighting: DHA Design Cost Consultant: Ridge