OXFORD // A futuristic addition to Oxford University’s Middle East Centre, designed by the world-renowned Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, opened this week.
The 1,127-square-metre structure of curvy stainless steel joined two Victorian buildings at St Antony’s College will house the centre’s archive, library and a lecture theatre.
The building was named after Investcorp — an investment company founded by Iraqi-born financier Nemir Kirdar — which donated £11 million (Dh62.16m) for the project.
The opening ceremony was attended by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, which develops education and scientific research, and has a partnership with the centre, described the building as “bold and daring”.
Sheikha Mozah, the Unesco special envoy for education, who is also the mother of Qatar’s emir, praised her organisation’s work with the centre as “essential in driving open debate and in helping us build just societies based on universal, eternal values.”
Explaining her decision to take on the project, Ms Hadid said it was “an honour” for her to design the building as she was born in Iraq.
“The work of the Middle East Centre contributes to the global discourse and greater understanding of the region,” she said, adding that it also allows the centre to expand its commitment as a forum of research, understanding and open debate.
The Middle East Centre’s director Eugene Rogan said that when an architectural model of the building was first revealed to the alumni, many objected that the design did not look “Middle Eastern”. They were expecting domes and geometric patterns typical of the region’s historic architecture, he said.
The new building “looks like the Middle East of the 21st century, so why should we be lagging behind the region we study?” Dr Rogan asked.
“We should be as bold — as a scholarly community — in what we commission as is the current trend in the region itself.”
Dr Rogan said Ms Hadid has built a great deal in the Gulf and elsewhere in the modern-day Middle East.
“As one of Britain’s most acclaimed architects, with roots firmly in the Middle East, Hadid was the ideal choice for this project. Her history parallels our vision of Oxford’s Middle East Centre as a British centre of excellence with deep roots in the region,” said Dr Rogan.
He said he approached her after previous plans by an Oxford-based architectural practice were rejected for conservation reasons.
Ms Hadid’s design was “divisive” as well, he said. Some members of the local council, who were determined to preserve the “Victorian, leafy character” of the area, “thought it was the wrong idea”.
They were narrowly outvoted, Dr Rogan said.
“With this new building, the Middle East Centre enters a new era as one of the world’s finest research facilities on this area of crucial public interest,” Dr Rogan said.
The centre was founded in 1957 to enable research on the region in the modern era.
Ms Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. Eight years later, having completed the Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympic Games, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
* With additional reporting from Reuters