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Modern architecture in Oxford Colleges (part I)

September 1, 2014


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Thomas White Building, St John’s College, 1970, by Arup Associates

A few months ago I went on an excellent Twentieth Century Society tour of modern architecture in Oxford colleges, expertly led by architect Alan Berman. The themes of the day were – the use of high quality materials, both stone and concrete, superb craftsmanship, and innovative architectural design whilst (mostly) respecting the college’s historical context.

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‘The Beehive’, St John’s College, 1958, by Michael Powers from Architects Co-Partnership

The tour started with three buildings at St John’s, one of the wealthiest colleges. Firstly, the student residences known as ‘The Beehive’, 1958, by Michael Powers from Architects Co-Partnership, with interlocking hexagonal rooms influenced by organic forms (an architectural fashion at the time). Despite its modern look, the building, like several others on the tour, still has the traditional collegiate arrangement of rooms off staircases.

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Thomas White Building, St John’s College, 1970, by Arup Associates

Next came Arup Associates’ Thomas White Building, 1970, more residences, with a high-quality pre-cast concrete ‘exo skeleton’ that nicely integrates an historic boundary wall into the design. The Concrete Society gave this building an award in 1976, describing the quality of finish as ‘breathtaking’.

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The Garden Quadrangle, St John’s College,1995 by Richard MacCormac

Lastly at St John’s, I saw Richard MacCormac’s extravagant Garden Quadrangle, 1995, with obvious classical influences and the use of the finest quality materials, including screens made of thousands of pieces of sawn glass by Polish artist Alexander Beleschenko. Oxford academic Geoffrey Tyack aptly describes this building as: ‘a self-consciously dramatic Piranesian confection of upper and lower levels, brick, concrete and glass towers, geometrically disposed planting beds, and chains which channel rainwater into floodlights where it steams off dramatically’.

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Residences and bar, Keble College, 1973, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek

At Keble College I walked through Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s superb residences and bar, 1973. This building makes no attempt to fit in with William Butterfield’s polychromatic Victorian masterpiece (Ahrends said the college ‘wanted to make a statement’ with a new build). This long thin building is only one room wide with an internal walkway ending (conveniently) in a bar. One side is a continuous wall of tinted glass that neatly reflects Butterfield’s brickwork, whilst the rear side is a huge fortress-like brick wall (which even has slit windows). I like Marc Girouard’s comments in the Architectural Review, where he compares this building to a snake, not just because of its long, sinuous plan but also because the glazing reminds him of a reptile’s scales. Here too, we have the traditional collegiate arrangement of rooms off staircases, albeit with brightly painted doors (organised in colours of the rainbow).

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Residences and bar (exterior wall), Keble College, 1973, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek

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Residences and bar (internal walkway), Keble College,1973, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek

I admired North Oxford’s Victorian Gothic on the walk out of the city centre to Powell and Moya’s Wolfson College, 1967-71. This new graduate college, located next to the River Cherwell, even has its own punt harbour. There are also beautiful water meadows, reached by walking over the arched High Bridge that was built as a relief project by the unemployed in 1923-24.  Thanks to the college, the tour group enjoyed coffee and biscuits in Wolfson’s fine refectory, which is possibly an unusual square shape because egalitarian President, Isiah Berlin, didn’t want a traditional Oxbridge High Table.

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Wolfson College, 1967-71, by Powell and Moya

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Wolfson College (refectory interior), 1967-71,-by Powell and Moya

Oxford is so rich in post-war architecture that even before the second half of the tour began I glimpsed more superb examples during the lunch break. These will be covered in part II, along with other exceptional modern Oxford college buildings, including St Catherine’s, that superlative modernist college by Arne Jacobsen.


From → Architecture

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