St Hilda's College's new buildings on the bank of the Cherwell
On Architecture

Dreamy spires

Oxford is home to many brilliant modern buildings

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is depressing how much bad architecture there is in London: so many cheapskate, shoddy commercial buildings expected to make a quick buck for property developers and which have a life span of only 25 years.

Of course, there are developers who make efforts to construct high quality buildings. But there is a problem in that they think of each building in isolation, not as part of a wider urban environment; they tend to design for those who are going to occupy the offices, not for those who have to look at the buildings from outside. As a result, the City of London has become gimcrack, looking more like Singapore and Hong Kong than the fine city it once was.

One of the best of the Oxford colleges for architecture is St John’s

As an antidote, I took myself off to look at new buildings in Oxford as a reminder that it is still perfectly possible to produce exemplary architecture. It requires thoughtful clients prepared to think about architecture in the long term; how to add to a historical environment with tact, and spend money on good quality materials as an investment in the future.

Of course, people will say that Oxford is privileged and has the money to invest. But it is not just about money. It is also about will — a belief in quality, a view that if Oxford is able to invest in the best in scholarship and research, then it should also have the best buildings.

There is competition between the colleges as to who can attract the biggest donors from amongst their alumni and attract students by investing in first-rate libraries, common rooms, and student accommodation.

One of the best of the Oxford colleges for architecture is St John’s, helped by the fact that one of its fellows has been an architectural historian from the time when Howard Colvin, author of the Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, became a fellow in 1948 and, on the advice of Sir John Summerson, replaced Sir Edward Maufe as the College’s preferred architect. In Maufe’s place, Architects’ Co-Partnership designed in 1957 new accommodation for the college known as The Beehive.

In 1967, Philip Dowson of Arup Associates won a limited competition to design more student accommodation. In the 1990s, Richard MacCormac designed the so-called Garden Quadrangle. Although the architects employed were all modernists, they tempered their modernism by using the best materials and inserting their buildings into the college’s historic environment with intelligence.

More recently, Wright & Wright, architects who have become specialists in library design, were recruited to design a new library, a nearly impossible task because the space allocated was a narrow slot in between the old college wall and the President’s Garden, so the building couldn’t have a public façade, or a view out, on either side.

The library at St John’s

But the architects have managed to solve the conundrum by connecting the new library to the old through a long entrance corridor and providing incredibly high quality internal spaces. There are spaces to work, to read and to lounge, private spaces and social spaces, with a big day-lit meeting room. You can feel that no “value engineering” was used here — the process whereby project managers squeeze out the qualities of any building project in order to save on cost.

Then I went to have lunch at St. Hilda’s College, now a mixed college, but founded as a hall for women in 1893. It occupies a straggling group of historic buildings on the banks of the River Cherwell with a distant view of the dreaming spires of Oxford beyond the playing fields of Magdalen College School. In 2016, the college held a competition for a new building which would occupy the site of the car park in the middle of the college and thereby connect the line of miscellaneous historic buildings on Cowley Place to the dour Victorian building, originally built as a private house called Cherwell Hall, in the garden beyond.

It may be a benefit that they are not necessarily architectural specialists, but humanists

The then-college president, Gordon Duff, insisted on holding a proper open competition, organised by Malcolm Reading, a specialist in organising competitions. They recruited a relatively young firm of architects, Gort Scott, who presented a proposal to demolish the existing building on the riverside and, instead, design an open, glazed, polygonal garden pavilion, which gives a focus to the college and opens it up both to the river and the view across the meadows beyond.

Behind this and overlooking it is a long, brick accommodation building, which in some ways resembles the new vernacular for public housing. The materials used are not expensive. What is important is the sense of care in the siting of the buildings, the way the accommodation building is subtly bent to follow the contour of the river, and the use of a small amount of ornamental brickwork to add liveliness and visual interest.

At the entrance to the college, there is now a tower with filigree metalwork decoration which replicates some of the ornament in the Victorian building. Ornament is no longer a crime.

As clients, college fellows may sometimes be tricky and demanding, because they are strongly independent-minded. But they have the advantage that they have a sense of continuity and want to leave a legacy. It may be a benefit that they are not necessarily architectural specialists, but humanists. There are lessons in this for what produces good architecture.

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