The Big Hand rises from the landscaped precincts of the new Radcliffe Observatory Quarter: it is a movable, 30-metre, double-ended column, with a core of cast stainless steel; it tilts at the same 7.5 degree angle as the Sun’s axis, relative to the ecliptic; and, crucially, its surface is a curved and attenuated video screen, the very latest technology, presenting ever-changing imagery along its needle-like length.
This visual material is sampled minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, from a dedicated web-portal, a forum where the text and images of the University’s current research conversations are collated live. Below ground, the same information is shown on screens which permit a more conventional reading. But the main presentation, flickering along this monumental shaft of light, is live, celebratory and fleeting: the pulse of a great university.
The advance of knowledge in most fields depends less on individuals than on the interchanges that happen between them. Increasingly, this is not the stuff of impulsive speech, nor of the inhibited, overworked script of the final paper; it arises in between, in the nearly-spontaneous yet considered electronic exchange of ideas in the here-and-now. Contemporary mechanisms for conversation stimulate collaboration, almost create the need for it; they invite the crowd-sourcing of solutions.
More than a monument, The Big Hand is a powerful instrument for making this process visible, echoing and amplifying cutting-edge digital traffic to create an arresting public display. In so doing, it reintroduces a neglected mainstay of public architecture, the narrative, as exemplified by the monumental carved relief of the Athenian winds on the octagonal tower of the original Observatory. The difference is that the contemporary narrative is live, and hence The Big Hand takes its name from the clock, because the process which it reveals and celebrates occurs in the minutes of every day.
The Carfax planning rule restricting the height of buildings in the centre of Oxford has a flatlining effect on the skyline and gives the Quarter an administrative character inappropriate to the City of Dreaming Spires.
Oxford University’s largest development deserves a contemporary spire and a shining beacon. The double-ended column of The Big Hand probes the earth and reaches towards space, breaking through the invisible planning line imposed by the Carfax rule, just as the research played out on its surface is multidirectional and breaks through the frontiers of existing knowledge.