15 June, 2005Issue 4.3EuropeHistoryThe Arts

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Oxford’s Post-War Architecture

Matthew Nicholls

Geoffrey Tyack
Modern Architecture in an Oxford College: St. John’s College 1945-2005
OUP, 2006
144 pages
ISBN 0199271623

Oxford is a city full of much-loved old buildings and mostly-unloved modern ones. The first reaction to the various quads, annexes, library extensions, laboratories, and offices built by the University and its Colleges since, say, 1945 is often one of hostility or incomprehension. Many colleges have a ‘modern eyesore’ tucked away somewhere behind their statelier ranges or in an outlying annexe, and so most of us can feel some sympathy with Bill Bryson’s characteristically robust condemnation of the city’s modern architecture:

What sort of mad seizure was it that gripped the city’s planners, architects, and college authorities in the 1960s and 1970s? […] Just look at the Merton College Warden’s Quarters – which is not by any means the worst building in the city. What a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction. First, some architect had to design it, had to wander through a city steeped in eight hundred years of architectural tradition, and with great care conceive of a structure that looked like a toaster with windows. Then a committee of finely educated minds at Merton had to show the most extraordinary indifference to their responsibilities to posterity and say to themselves, ‘You know, we’ve been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let’s have an ugly one for a change.’ Then the planning authorities had to say, ‘Well, why not? Plenty worse elsewhere.’ Then the whole of the city—students, dons, shopkeepers, office workers, members of the Oxford Preservation Trust—had to acquiesce and not kick up a fuss. Multiply this by, say, two hundred or three hundred or four hundred and you have modern Oxford.

Bryson’s tirade, of course, does not tell the whole story. Some of Oxford’s modern buildings—ugly, impractical, justly unloved—are fair targets; others, though, are success stories, enriching the city’s thousand-year architectural patrimony. In each category are buildings that are now part of the city’s and University’s history: love them or hate them, they illustrate important architectural movements and developments in taste, materials, and engineering, and also chart the changing nature of the institutions that built them.

Tyack’s book unpacks the processes of decision-making obliquely outlined by Bryson, explaining the rationale behind what the latter saw as simple folly. He uses as examples a series of structures erected by a single College, St John’s, which used the twin blessings of a large site and deep pockets to become one of Oxford’s most important architectural patrons in the second half of the twentieth century, commissioning or completing major projects in every decade since the Second World War. Appearing in St John’s 450th anniversary year, the book will naturally interest those with a connection to the College, but frequent comparisons with the story of modern architecture elsewhere in Oxford and beyond broaden its appeal. Anyone interested in how our city’s modern buildings came to be built will find it a richly rewarding read.

The book begins with an account of the growing need for new accommodation in post-war Oxford, as the University and the government sought to improve access to higher education. St John’s first response was Sir Edward Maufe’s inoffensive neo-Georgian Dolphin Quadrangle, which offered ‘a safe and reassuring style to an age which felt that it had experienced enough change’.

As post-war prosperity and confidence increased, proponents of the architectural avant-garde began to outnumber the conservatives. British architectsand patrons began to favour a movement whose roots in Geoffrey Tyack on the Modern College Britain stretched back to the International Style of the 1930s, in which function dictated form and ornament was eschewed: bold, even stark, simplicity was the order of the day.

In Oxford the tipping point came when a caucus of young fellows at St John’s rejected Maufe’s plan for the completion of the College’s North Quad and demanded a ‘frankly contemporary treatment which would make no concessions to the adjoining buildings’. The young modernists of the Architects’ Co-Partnership were chosen instead of Maufe; as admirers of the Bauhaus and Lubetkin’s Tecton firm they were epitomes of the urge to regenerate and renew in post-war Britain. The modernisers did not have it all their own way, though. At an early stage of the project, the architect Michael Powers showed the fellows his designs for a building whose study-bedrooms opened off corridors. ‘There was a gasp of horror and revulsion. “What? Can’t have that! Can’t have that! Can’t have corridors in St John’s! […] Women’s Colleges have corridors! Keble has corridors!” What did we want then? Staircases! Staircases!’

The result was the Beehive, a set of hexagonal student rooms whose dramatic intrusion into the quad has gathered praise and criticism in more or less equal measure ever since. Tyack likes the building’s ‘variety, surprise, irregularity, varied surface’; current residents are less sure, although most agree that it is comfortable to live in.

Expansion continued in the 1960s and 70s as participation in university education more than doubled. This was the era of the baby boom, the maintenance grant, and Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. Britain needed a new generation of administrators and technocrats, and the universities were to provide them. The Architectural Review of 1963 caught the zeitgeist when it claimed that there was ‘a new intellectual tone to university patronage […]. The air of ivy-girt traditionalism has blown away. The aim now […] is to make universities contribute visibly to the progressive applications of the nation.’

This atmosphere of rapid, progressive growth produced in Oxford more than a few buildings like Bryson’s ‘toaster with windows’, whose ideologies of style and function seem dated today, but whose effects were profound. St John’s contribution, the Thomas White Quadrangle of 1975, benefits through its detachment from the College’s existing buildings, allowing it sufficient space to speak for itself, and from the landscaping which over the years has grown up to soften its harder edges. Conceived initially as a huge project incorporating a lecture theatre, an underground swimming pool, a car-park, a library, and a ‘chapter-house’ SCR, the project was scaled back to the eight-staircase block which can now be seen from the western end of Museum Road. It too keeps the staircase as its ordering principle, but follows a strand of architectural rationalism that makes the building’s structure intelligible to the viewer, exposing its skeletal framework and emphasising its materials (concrete and glass). The result was a building credited with boosting St John’s academic standing within the University, as it allowed the College to attract students with the offer of on-site accommodation throughout their courses.

More recent developments continue to echo the changing nature of the University and of architectural tastes. In the last quarter of the 20th century, rising numbers of graduate students and high property prices meant that it was desirable for colleges to add yet more new accommodation, and libraries and labs continued to strain their existing facilities. Meanwhile, the modernist architectural movement that had dominated the last three decades began to be eclipsed by a shift towards the post-modern. Those who were had been discomforted by the starkness of modernist architecture found their views in favour again; the Prince of Wales famously called a proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery a ‘monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.’ Accordingly, architects began to reintroduce vernacular elements to their buildings, incorporating decorative treatments for their own sake and once again privileging form above pure function. Buildings also began to take more note of their surroundings, abandoning the shock tactics which characterised earlier designs: it is hard to imagine a modern college committee demanding, as St John’s did with the Beehive, that a building deliberately clash with its older neighbours, or erecting something as wilfully eccentric as Stirling’s Florey Building (at The Queen’s College).

Oxford’s first example of the new style was the Sainsbury Building at Worcester, with its brick exterior and reassuring pitched roofs. In recent years many others have followed, ranging from the novel (MacCormac’s Bowra building in Wadham, for example) to the amiable pastiche of the Sackler Library or Magdalen College’s Grove Buildings. At St John’s, Tyack chronicles the design and construction of the architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s Garden Quad, 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 fl oodlights where it steams off dramatically. The author includes an early artists’ impression showing exuberant vegetation and a group of students playing lutes in a glass-walled belvedere: things have come a long way since the austere days of the 1940s and 50s.

Ultimately, Tyack’s blend of the particular with the general makes this a very engaging book; he is able to connect specific buildings in Oxford with national and international social and architectural trends in a way that should fascinate expert and non-specialist alike. He writes elegantly, avoiding jargon and explaining clearly the wider context of his subject buildings, and he and his publishers have sensibly illustrated the book very liberally with good clear photographs and plans.

Matthew Nicholls is a Junior Research Fellow in Classics at The Queen’s College, Oxford. His research and teaching interests include ancient architecture.