Friday, 1 April 2011

Quadrangular: Oxford

This is a post vaguely inspired by Pevsner's unfinished, recently reassembled Visual Planning and the Picturesque, where the great man wanders round Oxford, Lincoln's Inn and Roehampton's Alton Estate, seeing all of them as exemplars of an irregular, organic approach to planning based on juxtaposition and flow rather than orders and axes. It's an interesting way of planning a city, no doubt, but it has certain differences with how most of the cities I like work.

For instance, the approach from the railway station. Like Cambridge, it's based on making sure industrial modernity doesn't stray to far into the heart of the city, so your first sight of it is a car park and some Barratt/Bovis/Wimpey/whoever dreck. The cities that look exciting from the train - Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, even Newport - throw you straight into the city, all bridges, office blocks and spires. Here, the most interesting thing is this bit of rationalismo by Dixon Jones, which is weirdly more like an Aldo Rossi painting than any actual Aldo Rossi buildings I've seen.

The last time - the first time - I was in Oxford was with IT a few months ago. Naturally, as a lecturer in an ex-poly she can barely look at the place without fury. As a way of building a city, it's certainly spectacularly exclusive - around half of the spaces are basically private quadrangles open only at the colleges' discretion. This also has interesting consequences for the modern architecture of the city - as there's loads of it, it's all post-war, it's all very good, but it's nearly all hidden away where the tourists won't look. So though you might enter something like this, above...

After a little while you will come to something like this. These, the Beehives, are the first Modernist buildings in Oxford, designed in the '50s by the Architects Co-Partnership, at a time when most of the new buildings were neo-Georgian. My guide has a short text on the subjectwhich explains their appeal better than I could.

Much as the Harold Wilson-era Labour intent seemed to be the making a more mixed-class establishment by opening up education to gifted working class youth, rather than getting rid of the establishment altogether, modernism, when it belatedly arrived in Oxford, followed the rules of an inherently exclusive and undemocratic city, only attempting to give it a new and more democratic sense of space and style. So as they're fundamentally unchallenged by it, the colleges treat it very well - no spalling concrete here, in the courtyards.

The process continues after Modernism, in an even more self-conscious fashion, as Arup's prickly brutalist quadrangles give way to the early '90s postmodernism of MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard. As if to reinforce the Lewis Carroll feel, there's the giant chessboard above...

As a fairly irreconcilable pomo hater, I can just about deal with somewhere like this, not for stylistic reasons, but because it still manages to continue modernism's insights into space - there's movement here above and below, multiple levels, passageways and trapdoors, all of which would never be allowed somewhere that was to be Secured by Design. It's welcoming, surprising and flowing space, if you're allowed in.

But all this is emphatically not public. You reach it through an electronic touch-card applied to a tiny, spiked door like the above.

In fact, in subscribing to its essentials while subverting its stylistic assumptions, Modernism and Pomo might just have been following in the footsteps of the various deliberately crass and aggressive Ruskinians of the 19th century - like Butterfield at Keble, a fireworks display beamed down from Cottonopolis or Brum, which is perhaps more of an attack on Oxonian assumptions than anything in concrete.

...which leads to one of the most extraordinary examples of the city's stealth modernism, Ahrends Burton and Koralek's snaking high-tech extension, a bit of which got snipped off by the prolifically boring Rick Mather.

Outside of the density, privacy, architectural enclosure and excitement of the quadrangular system, Oxford feels more like Cambridge, which gets a chapter in New Ruins - straggling, suburban, dotted with landmarks. One of them is this gigantic Brutalist laboratory by Leslie Martin. Perhaps because everyone can see it, it's in a far more parlous state than any other bit of Oxford Modern.

The concrete is in need of a clean, unlike with Arup's insular effort; it's as if the owners are ashamed of its presumptuousness in being both modern and actually visible to the civilian. This can be seen especially in the tragically cheap PFI extensions round the back....

Next is a Leslie Martin building in better nick, the Libraries. This is in the first book about architecture I ever bought, a '60s Pelican History of English Architecture, where they describe it as 'dynastic' - which sounds about right. Somewhere between Hilversum and Assyria, though Alex suggests Odessa.

From there, along gaping voids of playing fields, to St Catherine's College, Arne Jacobsen's Grade 1 listed High Modernist opus. The entrance to it is by Stephen Hodder, marginally less dull than Rick Mather but in a similarly timid, business park-like psuedomodernist vein. Pevsner would have regarded this attempt to fit in as a big mistake, a misreading of the picturesque qualities of Oxford planning...

St Catherine's, being designed by an internationally famous Dane and all, is often considered offensively un-English. Which is funny, as the first thing it makes me think of, in its ruthless rectilinear sweep set amongst greenery, is the Smithsons' Hunstanton School, which as a Secondary Modern catered for a very different post-war educational clientele - and both have something very Alexander Pope about them - measured, unnatural, Augustan.

I despise the term High Modernism, considering it pernicious and often meaningless, but if it means anything in architecture it means this, as sure as it means Woolf in literature. It proclaims itself as a Work Of Art, and emphatically not a popular one, while Modernism on the whole is, whatever some may try to prove, usually in a constant, if tortured, dialogue with the popular. Being 'High', St Catherine's eschews montage and juxtaposition, standing on its own. Yet if it does have much to do with Oxford, it's the Through the Looking Glass element, the miniature mazes of topiary that define it.

As a Stadtkrone, an attempt to set up a dreaming spire, there's a concrete tower which evokes something Italian Rationalist, like Dixon with Rossi - here it is Terragni's de-secularisation of Sant'Elia, albeit significantly more trim and chic. It's a fascinating series of objects, and I could look at this place for hours, but - and here I conform appallingly to English stereotype - I could never love it. Pevsner adored it.

Out from there, and we hit some pomo of a much more typical kind than the thoughtful spatial manipulations of McCormac. This could be anywhere in the south of England, but hardly anywhere else.

Then there's the centre. There's another Oxford that I'd like to explore - the car factories, places like Blackbird Leys, which I'm sure native informant Will Wiles would have something to say about - but this is about the place which, as we're out of season, is full of people snapping away just as avidly as me.

OK, so I love this, I won't deny it. But I'm glad I didn't go to university in it. It's so funny how Modern architects fitted into this place, how they didn't want to disrupt it. What is now Holywells, below, was designed by Macmillan and Metzstein of Gillespie Kidd & Coia, architects capable of great Brutalist aggression - but here, they've slotted something into it that even Charles Windsor couldn't possibly object to.

I imagine a hypothetical reader of Visual Planning and the Picturesque would find it difficult to see the picturesque, the visual drama and humanism, in the Alton Estate because of its form - because it's a series of mere council blocks and maisonettes. Similarly, I should love the below, where a series of contrasting rooflines along a narrow street lead to a bristling spire - but the cultural signifiers rub me up the wrong way, grate at my inverted snobbery.

This is a fabulously silly thing, though - a skyway! It was opened in 1914, but the fantasy is here, at least, entirely convincing. Pevs proclaims 'a bridge across a street is always the greatest temptation to explore beyond'. We don't, though.

It's interesting to see how the three biggest egos in 1960s British architecture - James Stirling and Alison & Peter Smithson - inserted their ideas into all this.

We don't see the interior courtyard of Stirling's Florey Building - the reasons why are explained in the image at the top of this post - but I see enough to, once again, notice how much more massive Stirling buildings look in photographs than in reality, and to note what a poor bit of planning it is - surrounded by a car park and straggly indeterminate space, taking the Oxonian fixation with hiding away to outrageous extremes.

The internal space looks wonderful through the grate, of course.

All that said, it's an extremely impressive building, and as a piece of stand-alone architecture I like it more than perhaps anything else here. It has more in common with Butterfield at Keble than anything else - full of tensions and angles - but it's a shame that it got plonked in this corner, when it could have been placed somewhere where its postures could have been aimed at something rather than a private matter. Maybe it does do this from above. It loses Pevsner points for good reason, not so much visually - Pevs clearly couldn't stand the sort of architectures I'd consider Militant Modernisms - brutalism, expressionism and constructivism, all of which are drawn on by Stirling here - but for its lack of interest in the spirit of the place.

Funny that the Smithsons - who were, in the architectural press of the '50s, the scourge of Townscape and picturesque planning - did something so mild and contextual, even trying to encourage creepers up their Halls at St Hilda's.

Outside of that, a bit of residential planning. Not having been to Bath, I don't expect terraces in the south of England to look this ordered and elegant, and grope around for northern comparisons to make sense of them. Halifax, maybe, a town I prefer to Oxford which is around the same size, which has some of these. What it doesn't have, I suppose, is this:

I'm not sure who is responsible for this - ABK again? Powell & Moya? - but it's a marvellous, fearless juxtaposition, not a mindless plonking but an alignment of differing elements. But even here, notice the wall enclosing it, Victorian paranoia crassened further recently with barbs. It's one of the only Modernist incursions into the actual streetline, one of only a couple which the tourists can see. They can see this, mind you - John Outram for halfwits.

This is another - more spindly, Gothic Brutalism from Arup. It's striking, but it's an exception. Oxford keeps its modernity closely guarded, as secretive and exclusive as you'd expect for a place which is still the main source of power - in media, in politics, in the City, wherever - in the UK, even after nearly 900 years. Beautiful as it may be, it's sad nobody ever really tried to threaten it - architects or politicians.

Originally published at SDMYABT on 7/8/10


  1. "Prolifically boring". That's a fabulous put-down. Lovely post too. The GCK building is a strange one. Do you know when it was done? It has some of the qualities I was trying to pin-point in that conversation about Murray Mews in Camden - ex-Brutalists being polite - so I wonder if its from the same era i.e. late 1970's?

    Great snap of the inside of Stirling's patio too!

  2. I appreciate, cause I found just what I was looking for. You've ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Good article,very Formidable.
    Robert Michael Furniture
    offset patio umbrella

  3. Thank you for bringing more information to this topic for me. I’m truly grateful and really impressed. Please visit