Oxford University receives planning approval for the new Humanities building

Schwarzman Centre by night

Oxford University receives planning approval for the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities 

The University has also received an additional £25 million gift towards the Centre from Mr Schwarzman, bringing his total gift to £175 million. 

Oxford University’s application to build the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities on the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter site was approved by Oxford City Council at a planning meeting on the evening of Tuesday 8 March. 

The unanimous approval from the City Councillors allows the University to start construction on the Centre later this year ahead of its opening in 2025. The Centre will boost teaching and research in the humanities at Oxford University and provide them with a new home which brings together seven faculties, the Institute for Ethics in AI, the Oxford Internet Institute, and a new library. It will also house a full suite of high-quality exhibition and performance spaces, allowing public audiences to engage more deeply with the University. The Centre will be a model for the essential role of the humanities in helping the world to confront some of the most pressing questions and challenges it faces today. 

The Centre has been made possible by a £150 million gift to the University in 2019 from Stephen A. Schwarzman, Chairman, CEO and Co-founder of Blackstone, one of the world's leading investment firms. Mr Schwarzman has now given an additional £25 million gift to the University, raising his total support for the project to £175 million. His latest gift supports the University to realise its ambition to build a state-of-the-art and environmentally sustainable building which delivers outstanding academic and public-facing activity.  

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: “I am absolutely delighted that Oxford City Council has approved our application to build the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. This building will be a fabulous addition both to the cultural life of the city and to the intellectual and social life of the University, now and for generations to come. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Mr Schwarzman for his exceptionally generous additional gift of £25 million which will enable us to realise the vision we presented to the Council.” 

Stephen A. Schwarzman said: “I am pleased to support the University with this additional gift and look forward to seeing the impact the Centre will have on Oxford students, faculty, community members and the world for years to come. Oxford has a unique opportunity to share and apply its leadership in the humanities to the most fundamental questions of the 21st century and I’m proud of the role the Centre will play in this mission.” 

Professor William Whyte, Senior Responsible Owner for the project at the University of Oxford, said: “It is thanks to the hundreds of conversations with scores of people across the city over the last two years that we’ve been able to create such an inspirational design for a building which will be a pioneering example of sustainability in architecture. Construction work on the site will begin in earnest in October and we cannot wait to welcome the public into the Centre when it opens in 2025. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities will transform the work of our scholars by providing a new home for research and teaching in Oxford Humanities.”

Oxford residents and other interested parties are invited to sign up to a termly newsletter with updates on the construction process and other public events organised under the banner of the Centre by emailing communications@humanities.ox.ac.uk. A website with more information on construction progress will launch in the coming months, and more information about the wider project can be found at www.schwarzmancentre.ox.ac.uk

The timeline for construction will be as follows:

  • April to September 2022: Enabling works will begin on the site.  
  • May-June 2022: A new website will be launched with information on progress on the site, and the first newsletter will be sent out. 
  • October 2022: Construction will begin on the site in earnest. Hoardings will be erected around perimeter offering viewpoints for people to see what is happening. 
  • 2025: The building will open. 

The Centre will bring Oxford Humanities to a wide audience by offering: 

  • Major new performances venues, including a 500-seat concert hall, a 250-seat theatre and a 100-seat Black Box space for creating and delivering experimental performances.  
  • Exhibitions, lectures and performances which bring Oxford’s research to wide audiences through the new Humanities Cultural Programme. 
  • A schools and public engagement centre to bring schoolchildren in Oxfordshire into contact with Humanities research and researchers. 
  • New access routes and landscaping which open up and connect the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and the surrounding area. 
  • A café and other meeting spaces which are open to the public and accessible without having to pass through a security barrier. 

The University has ambitious sustainability objectives for the design, construction and operation of the Centre. It will be a highly energy efficient building designed according to Passivhaus principles, which is very unusual for a building of this size. It will include: 

  • Very high levels of insulation to reduce the heat needed in the building. 
  • More biodiversity on the site than existed before, with planting that appeals to wildlife and options for bird boxes. 
  • New planting, landscaping and green spaces. 
  • Cycle parking and encouragement for visitors to take public transport, with no new parking spaces other than for disabled users. 
  • Solar power generation on the roof. 
  • This will be an all-electric building, with heat pumps rather than boilers. 

While the building will open in 2025, the Centre is already a hub of activity. The Institute for Ethics in AI has grown to a core team of eight academics and four doctoral students who are producing new research and thinking around the ethical questions posed by the rapid development of artificial intelligence. The Humanities Cultural Programme has developed almost 100 projects so far, with around 1,000 events involving local, national and international creative collaborators, reaching online and in-person audiences of over half a million. Both will continue to expand and develop before moving into the Centre in 2025. 

The plans for the Centre have been designed by Hopkins Architects. Laing O’Rourke has been appointed as main contractor to the project. They have significant experience in leading building projects on the ROQ site and will put in place measures to minimise any disruption to surrounding residents, businesses, traffic and pedestrians.