St Peter’s College, Oxford, was the site of the first collaborative project between Foster Associates and Buckminster Fuller. Francis Warner, then a Fellow of St Peter’s College and a long-time friend of Samuel Beckett, instigated the scheme in 1971 with the observation that the college, and Oxford, required a new, purpose-built experimental theatre which, he proposed, should be dedicated to the Nobel prize-winning dramatist. Richard Burton and Edward Heath, among others, were approached to head a fund-raising exercise and Buckminster Fuller was invited to prepare a series of outline proposals. Fuller invited Norman Foster to provide the support for this, his first English project.
With his customary directness, Fuller proposed to build the theatre beneath the college quadrangle, suggesting, at the same time, that the scope of the scheme be expanded to maximise use of the new building by creating a multi-purpose space, adaptable for a wide range of theatre configurations but also capable of interpretation as a highly serviced teaching or exhibition space. The subterranean solution was a direct response to the lack of any suitable site at ground level; but it had the added benefit of placing the new space at the most central position possible within the college.
The scheme was destined to flounder through lack of fund-raising support. Work continued, however, through to a prototype interior arrangement that proposed movable, triangular plastic blocks which could be simply rearranged to accommodate any conceivable configuration of seating layout and stage design.
“Bucky had a wonderfully evocative way of acting out how the forces of nature would work on his structures. On this occasion, suddenly – in the midst of trying to describe the form of the theatre – he ran into the bathroom and came back with a bar of soap, saying, ‘This is what it would look like.’ Inscribing the bar of soap ‘Oxford Beckett Theatre’, he signed it with a flourish.”
lecture at Stuttgart University, 14 May 1997
“In 1971 Bucky asked me to work with him on his first UK project. I did not know at the time that our collaboration would expand into a wider series of projects that would pose radical alternatives to conventional built forms.”