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Is Ugliness Necessary?

Gabriel Roberts

As buildings begin to go up in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, it’s worth asking what effect they will have on the area. The development is one of the most significant that Oxford has undertaken for more than a century and will make use of the largest vacant site in the city centre. An accommodation building for Somerville College has already been completed and work is underway refurbishing the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Outpatients’ buildings, and St Luke’s chapel. The finished site will also include a mathematics building, a humanities building, a health centre for Jericho, and, finally by 2015, the Blatavnik School of Government. Some of the images in the University’s Masterplan for the project also depict other buildings, although plans for these have not yet been announced. The development will bring numerous benefits. But is the University justified in claiming that it will enhance Oxford architecturally?

Oxford has many modern buildings which blend seamlessly with their surroundings: the Grove Auditorium at Magdalen and Merton’s Holywell buildings, to name but two. There are also buildings, like the Kendrew Quadrangle at St John’s, which make a less concerted effort to fit in, but which are at least restrained and unobtrusive. The buildings at the Observatory Quarter, on the other hand, show little evidence of having been designed for their location. Similar buildings are being built all over Britain and their flatly uniform textures, lack of decorative features, and strong grid-like patterns will clash with the Observatory and the surrounding area. The University claims that they will be made out of ‘enduring contextual materials that will age with dignity and character’ and that their composition ‘recalls Georgian terraces’. This is surely disingenuous. What they describe as ‘stone or precast stone’ looks like pale concrete in images of the site, and the sliding timber panels, which seem like a modish effort to make the buildings look eco-friendly, appear crude and blocky. The claim that they will resemble Georgian terraces looks more like a marketing ploy than a serious attempt to describe their appearance.

If the architects had taken a short walk around Jericho they might have discovered what works and what doesn’t. The Wolfson building at Somerville, which presents a row of deliberately featureless glass boxes, gives a clear indication of what not to do. Most of the buildings in Jericho are more humane. Many of the houses share common principles and materials, but also have individuating features. The materials used, mainly red and grey bricks, change gently with age, creating numerous half-intended details and a pleasant sense of rootedness. The domesticated classicism of many of the houses neatly reflects the design of the major buildings in the area—Worcester College, St Paul’s Church (now Freud’s), the University Press, and the Observatory. There are few buildings which clash with this pattern and many modern houses and extensions which have been actively designed to fit with it. The result is deeply satisfying. The conclusion to draw is not that the buildings in the Observatory Quarter should resemble Victorian cottages or Edwardian villas, but that they would look better if they used traditional materials and were designed in a less assertive manner.

Oxford’s historic buildings are essential to its success. Tourists come to Oxford to look at old buildings and to learn about the past. They don’t come to look at office blocks, as every rack of postcards makes clear. Likewise, for students and scholars, the old buildings in Oxford are a vital resource, stimulating the imagination and providing constant evidence of past beliefs and actions. This depends on the consistency of their design. Though the buildings in Oxford date from a variety of periods, they form a harmonious whole. The result is powerfully evocative. The architecture in cities like Oxford takes on a sublime quality as the forms blur in the imagination and become more than the sum of their parts. For people who find much of modern architecture soulless, Oxford offers a valuable respite. There are hundreds of towns in Britain which are dominated by angular constructions of concrete, glass, and steel; few have an architectural inheritance like Oxford’s. The buildings at the Observatory Quarter might be appropriate in another setting, but here? Surely not.

Architecture is often neglected. Although its social consequences are tremendous, today’s culturally literate individuals can get away with knowing nothing about it. Students don’t talk about architecture in the same way that they talk about films, plays, novels, and music, and even the University doesn’t seem to care that much. Most college websites, besides noting that the some of the buildings are old and pretty and some are challenging and modern, say surprisingly little. So far, discussion of the Observatory Quarter has been similarly muted, extending little further than local residents who described the buildings as ‘boring’ and like ‘office blocks’. This silence is all the more surprising in a town like Oxford. How did we lose our voices on such an important subject?

It may be that architecture blends art and practicality in a way which we find difficult to handle. The economic and technical aspects of buildings create uncertainty about whether they can be criticised aesthetically. When confronted with an ugly building, it’s easy to think that its ugliness is somehow necessary or that our objections have been considered and rejected during the building’s development. This isn’t a good way to think about the subject. For one thing, the apparent practicality of a building may conceal aesthetic choices which were made in its design, giving a false impression of which aspects can reasonably be criticised. Architects and planners, like the authors of the Masterplan, can also exploit their position, and a tone of superiority, to silence criticism. But if architects are to be answerable to the people who have to live with their creations, someone has to be willing to criticise them.

The Radcliffe Observatory Quarter will provide the University with useful space and facilities, and it’s unlikely to be uglier than the hospital which used to occupy the site. The new buildings will make good use of subterranean levels, provide excellent provision for bicycles, and make efficient use of light and heat. But they will be tedious and drab, neither innocuous enough to blend with their surroundings nor remotely memorable. They will not capture anything of what is distinctive about Oxford’s built environment and what is loved in it. If this is not to happen again and again, the discussion of architecture must cease to be the exclusive property of architects and planners.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a DPhil in English at Worcester College.