University of Oxford New Biochemistry \

Turning laboratory design on its head

World Class biochemistry research faculties set in the historical context of Oxford University Science area.

The Big Idea

This building has become recognised as a new model for university research buildings. It reverses the accepted layout that collects the laboratories in the dark centre of the building and instead puts the laboratories on the outside where they have contact with the outside world and are highly visible to the wider university community.

This allows the ‘write up’, teaching spaces and principal investigators offices to be collected around a busy atrium at the heart of the building. This is interconnected way of working has increased the number of research projects the department has sponsored, increased overall funding and attracted new researchers, lecturers and students from around the world.

The building exterior is much published, and photographed, because it is entirely made up of coloured glass fins that reflect the colours of the historic buildings that surround it. The coloured glass reflects coloured sunlight into the building during the day and at night projects spectacular colours out into the surrounding streets of the Science Area in Oxford.

The building is a contemporary response to a sensitive site surrounded by listed buildings like the University Museum. It is the first of two phases that have started the process of transformation of the Science Area over the next 15 -25 years.

“This is a beautiful, innovative and functional building. It allows conversations to happen that wouldn’t otherwise take place in a thousand years.”

Professor Kim Nasmyth, Head of Biochemistry, University of Oxford

Working From the Inside Out

Key to the whole concept for the new research building was designing a space that would provide a collaborative working environment that encouraged chance encounters and interactions. The interior scheme was an extension of the colours used on the external fins. The warm earthy tones of the local ironstone and tiles of Keeble College inspired these colours.

Within the atrium different configurations of meeting spaces using informal modular furniture contributed to the congeniality of the building. The site-specific works of art contribute to the rich interior environment by posing questions to the viewers. The science corridor with its strata like colour scheme transforms the building at night into a bright stage for the science activity and brings colour and light into the research labs.

Where are we now?

We are in active negotiation with the University in the summer of 2015 to complete the next phase of the consented scheme, and begin the briefing with new users.

An Artist's Perspective

‘Salt Bridges’ is an ambitious contemporary arts programme developed in collaboration with the university, consultant artist, Nicky Hirst, the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art and Artpoint and envisaged as an integral part of the biochemistry project.

  • To create an outstanding contemporary art collection within a world-class scientific research department
  • To facilitate inter-disciplinary discourse and opportunities for artists and scientists to extend their practice and experiment
  • To involve artists in the intellectual life of the Department
  • To provide new approaches and resources for public engagement with both the arts and science

In science the phrase 'Salt Bridges' refers to ion pairs, a form of strong interaction between oppositely charged residues. As a title for the art programme 'Salt Bridges' expresses the aspiration to build relationships between artists and scientists.

Award-winning contemporary artists Annie Cattrell, Peter Fraser and Tim Head joined Nicky Hirst to create a number of site-specific artworks alongside temporary exhibitions that fill the busy central space of the research building. See the related project page Salt Bridges to find out more.

“Since publicising our new building we have received 50% more applications to study Biochemistry at Oxford… and every one of our faculty’s top five choices has accepted research positions in our new building.”

Denis O’Driscoll, Associate Head of Department

Project Summary


  • WAN Awards 2011 - Colour in Architecture - Winner
  • AJ100 Awards 2010 - Building of the Year Award - Shortlisted
  • CIOB Construction Manager of the Year 2010 - Gold
  • Structural Steel Design Awards 2009 - Winner
  • RIBA Awards 2009 - National Award - Winner
  • World Festival of Architecture Awards 2009 - Shortlisted

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