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New humanities faculty building celebrates construction landmark in ‘topping out’ ceremony

On Friday 3rd May, the University of Oxford celebrated the ’topping out’ of the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. The ceremony to mark the completion of the roof involved speeches from Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey and donor Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, who has to date donated £185 million in support of the project. Musical acts clad in hard hats braved rainy conditions to perform on the roof, still a site of ongoing construction. 

Once completed, the Schwarzman Centre will bring together seven different faculties currently based around Oxford. It will be home to a 500-seat concert hall, a black box performance space, a new 140,000-book library, and the University’s new Ethics of AI institute. The centre will also facilitate  the Cultural Programme and a whole host of other projects and venues.

Tracey began the ceremony with a speech in which she praised the project and its progress so far. She highlighted the need to “support, nourish, and develop” the humanities into the future. The level of investment provided by Schwarzman comes in the face of cuts and closures to a growing number of humanities courses at universities across the country

Schwarzman also made a speech. Beginning by joking that the drizzly weather felt like February, he went on to praise the hard work of the construction workers who were “essential” for reaching the topping out stage. He also thanked former Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson for convincing him to donate to the project and spoke of how he in turn convinced her to take on the project “properly” and produce a building that pushes the boundaries of what is possible. 

The topping out ceremony itself involved a branch of the oldest tree in the University’s collection, an almost 400-year-old willow in the botanical gardens, which was attached to the final piece of roofing waiting to be moved into place. The use of the branch is an ancient tradition which aims to ward off “evil spirits” from the building.

Tracey, Schwarzman, and the CEO of the construction company, Laing O’Rourke, then signed the final slab of the roof ahead of it being moved into place. Members of the team from Laing O’Rourke and the University who have helped deliver the project up to this point were also invited to sign. 

Image Credit: John Cairns

Following the signings, guests were treated to rooftop music performances from the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra, saxophonist Soweto Kinch, and cabaret singer Meow Meow. The latter began her performance with a tongue-in-cheek statement against corruption and the pursuit of profit before reminding the audience that such concerns were “not what today is about.”

The performances were organised by the University’s recently launched Cultural Programme, which will hold a range of events around Oxford in the coming months while it prepares to use the completed building. 

While this ceremony celebrated the completion of the main body of the roof, the building has not yet reached its highest point. That moment will come within the next week when the giant dome is moved into place by a crane, having been assembled on the ground. The dome will be the ceiling of the central atrium, which will be known as the great hall. 

Head of the Humanities division, Professor Daniel Grimley, told Cherwell: “Celebrating topping out is a thrilling high point for the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, as we look forward to our opening in Autumn 2025. The Centre will be a beacon for the Arts and Humanities in Oxford, nationally, and beyond. We will welcome a diverse community of students, researchers, creative artists, policy makers, and members of the public, and offer an innovative and stimulating programme of events nourished by Oxford research.”

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