Oxford University architecture

Modern additions to Oxford University provide the best example of the integration of new and old in Britain, writesGiovanna Dunmall

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:07pm

With hundreds of university college buildings dating as far back as the 13th century, walking around Oxford can feel like stepping back in time.

"Oxford is one of the most beautiful historic cities in the world, with some of the best-maintained buildings," says Clare Wright, founding partner at London-based architects Wright & Wright.

"Unusually for this type of environment, new buildings keep being added, mainly of good quality and sensitive to their context. Oxford provides the best example of the integration of new and old in Britain, possibly the world."

Wright and her husband, Sandy, founded their architectural practice in 1994, and specialise in designing educational buildings, archives, museums and libraries. Last month, they began the radical refurbishment and extension of the existing library at Magdalen College and are consulting on how to bring St John's' beautiful 16th century library into the 21st century.

Wright also worked at HKP Architects, responsible for St Anne's and St Antony's colleges, so she's well placed to show me around some of Oxford University's most architecturally interesting colleges.

"To quote [Sicilian writer] Giuseppe Di Lampedusa: 'If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,'" says Wright as we embark on our tour. She points out that the university's colleges grew from monastic learning centres with medieval buildings and later added quads (or quadrangles, meaning courtyards surrounded by buildings) and Georgian halls.

After the second world war, many new buildings and extensions were constructed to house growing numbers of students and modern teaching, learning styles and methods. When they started, colleges were about "eat, pray and learn", explains Wright, and their chapels, dining halls and libraries are still central to student life.

We start at St John's College and its decorative 17th century Canterbury Quadrangle. "This is one of the great urban spaces in Oxford - a key example of classical architecture," says Wright. "The quadrangle is carefully proportioned, playing with light and shadow, building and gardens."

St John's is an important modern architectural patron, with new projects commissioned every decade since the second world war. One of the most successful additions is its 2004 extension to the senior common room. Built by MJP Architects, it plays with the idea of boundaries and features glass walls that extend out into the garden, creating an ambiguity between what is outside and what is inside.

Our next stop is Wadham College, where Wright takes me to the library built in the 1970s by Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia. "This was the first of the new library buildings in Oxford and its influence was significant," says Wright. An expressive concrete form was used for the exterior and the building is dominated by a massive window at one corner that juts out into an old boundary wall. Students can sit on bean bags in sunken balconies that line this space - appropriately called the reading lounge - and enjoy close-up views of the lush garden outside.

Colleges often signal their most important spaces (such as chapels, dining halls and libraries) through their windows, Wright explains, and may use stained glass. "With Wadham library, the architects picked up on that tradition by creating a very grand window," she says. "This shows it's one of the principal spaces of the college."

Inside, the architects created a sequence of spaces that flow and alternate from intimate cocoon-like areas to more open areas with large suspended bay windows offering views onto the garden and the older parts of the college. "It's about compression and release, containment and expansion," says Wright. The inside is formed from exquisitely detailed oak joinery.

With more than 40 hectares of land, a deer park, carefully maintained flowerbeds and a romantic riverside walk, Magdalen College is a heavenly sort of place. Its early 16th century tower is a city landmark. This is noteworthy as colleges tend to present a fortress-like facade to the outside world, says Wright.

"Architecture reflects an organisation's ethos. Generally, college buildings are designed for those who use them, with emphasis on their inner organisation."

It is in Magdalen's most recently built quad - Longwall Quad - that Wright & Wright are going to extend the existing library, in the form of a new L-shaped wing, creating the missing fourth wall in the current 1920s quad scheme by renowned English architect Giles Gilbert Scott.

"It is going to be a contemporary statement," says Wright of the low-lying single-storey extension. The much altered interior of the existing library, originally a neo-Gothic 19th century school building, will be stripped away and replaced with a free-standing oak structure that will offer a series of well-ventilated and varied study and reading spaces that will all benefit from natural daylight. In front of the library, Wright & Wright have designed a sunken garden with steps, where students can study and socialise.

"It is a change to the way many colleges treat space," says Wright "This is much more informal and relaxed." Traditionally, a quad is laid to lawn with a route around it - in many colleges only "fellows" (teaching staff) may cross the lawn.

Our final stop is at St Catherine's. When it was built by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in the 1960s, it was the first new college to have been built in Oxford since Keble College in 1882. And it is still the only college campus in Oxford that isn't closed off by walls or buildings.

"Proportionally, the central quad is very classical and formal," says Wright as we walk in. "It closes the loop with the Canterbury Quadrangle we saw earlier."

Yet it is also less contained than the quads in the other colleges, and becomes even less formal the closer you to get to its edges, with squares and spaces defined or implied with the help of free-standing masonry walls and yew tree hedges. The atmosphere at "St Catz" (as students call it) is more austere, less cosseted and more cosmopolitan (the choice of a Danish architect was apparently shocking at the time). Yet it is still an Oxford college. Wright says: "It is this constant reinterpretation and reinvention that makes Oxford so architecturally vibrant."


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Tel: +44 (0) 1865 256 400


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For more information on Oxford University's colleges, visit ox.ac.uk