Most Oxford Colleges bare a concrete scar. It sits protruding, unsympathetic to its surroundings. It may look like a car park, a prison, or, in the words of Bill Bryson, “a toaster with windows”, but it’ll be there. As Bryson asks “what mad seizure gripped…architects and college authorities in the 1960s and 1970s?”
Even the name of this unloved architecture is ugly. ‘Brutalism’. Derived from “Breton brut”-French for “raw concrete”-the name sounds as soulless as the style. The buildings can be impractical to live in, supposedly ugly to look at. Voice of the people, Prince Charles, described them as “a monstrous carbuncle.”
Yet it was never supposed to be this way. The buildings of the 60s and 70s signalled a fresh start for post-war Britain, to new beginnings and a break from the past. Fellows at St John’s commissioned a “frankly contemporary” building which makes “no concessions”. There was an atmosphere for change, and brutalist buildings were where that change could be lived.
At the same time the University attempted to open its doors to more people. It introduced the maintenance grant. The newly built Wolfson College provided flats for married couples, whilst its hall was built without a High Table. New buildings were added to old quads. The more rooms that could be built, the more people could study. But in a medieval city, with little space to build upon, this was never going to be easy.
The Psychology and Zoology building on South Parks Road was a potential answer. Sir Leslie Martin, the architect, had studied how to achieve the most space possible from a constrained site. Yet the building was attacked as a glass and concrete monstrosity.
The Psychology and Zoology Building on South Parks Road.
If you ever walk past it though, just stop. Look at it. We all know it looks like a car park, but really, just look at it. It seems to float. Despite its sheer brute size, it sits weightless, upon glass. The walkways connecting the two buildings give a glimpse into the infrastructure. We see how it works, how the people inside it work. And though it towers, imposing and arresting, it does not threaten us. It is majestic.
The same can be said of the St Cross building. Comprised of the Law and English faculties, it slots together in a playful cubist jigsaw. Each block is separated, independent, highlighted by black anodized aluminium. It’s all linked, part of something greater. Corridors and steps lead to corners that promise views, hidden away for you alone. Step outside and walk away. Turn around. The building is still there, but it only peeks its head up. It hides behind others, not arrogantly imposing itself, but aware of its own presence, its own size and scale. Its own importance.
St Catz echoes this grandeur. Arne Jacobsen, the architect, designed everything from the landscape to the cutlery. The angular lines of the site bring a seriousness and a simplicity. Everything is arranged perfectly. It is planned, organised, deliberate. The geometric design is coherent. It makes sense. At the centre of the site sits the quad, yet unlike a traditional design, hedge-lined walks wander off to other buildings.
Throughout the town brutalist buildings provide a twist on tradition. More importantly though, they fit in. They stand proud, built in the same self confidence as the colleges. As though they’re meant to be there. Look closely and you notice a subtle beauty disguised by a plane of concrete. The shapes. Arrows, fans, rectangles, honeycombs. Each with a structure you can see.
These buildings are honest. They show what they are made of and what they were made for. Yet inevitably, a building that embodies change will be criticised. All Souls was attacked in 1710 for its newfangled “Gothick” towers which ruined the Oxford skyline. In 1886 Keble was considered revolutionary for combining a Fair Isle sweater with a public lavatory. Tastes change, and All Souls is now postcard Oxford. It took time, but it’s recognised as beautiful. And if plans go ahead, buildings such as Somerville’s Vaughan may never be given this opportunity.
With the redevelopment of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter site, various brutalist buildings will be replaced with modern equivalents. The English Faculty will move out of the St Cross Building. Somerville will build accommodation on the new site. And the intricate concrete skeleton of Vaughan building will be knocked down. Once Oxford Colleges drag themselves out of debt, there is the risk that the only way to expand will be at the expense of a brutalist building.
Luckily though, a number of them are protected. Christ Church’s Blue Boar quad is a Grade II* listed building due to the unique nature of its architecture. St Hugh’s Kenyon is listed in recognition of its plethora of south facing windows. The importance and individuality of these buildings has been recognised. And as such, they are difficult to demolish.
Taste is starting to change too. London’s Brunswick Centre is now posh enough to house a Waitrose. Sheffield’s Park Hill estate is being regenerated with the help of English Heritage. Birmingham’s Rotunda, a huge cylinder of concrete and glass has been prettified with apartments. Which sold out in three hours. Brutalism is popular again. And it is the University’s place to make sure that it is recognised as so in Oxford.
The Rotunda in Birmingham.
Lest we forget, these buildings can be impractical. They do leak, their boilers do break, their windows can be too big or too small. But they’re beautiful, and an embodiment of an important time in Oxford’s history. It is not a period of the past that should be airbrushed. To knock them down would be a crime. And not the first offence: the 50s saw stunning Victorian buildings flattened in the name of progress. To do the same to the buildings of the 60s and 70s would be to bulldoze blindly with the same architectural arrogance.
Without these concrete monstrosities, many of the current students wouldn’t be at Oxford. Those bedrooms were needed.
Change is inevitable though, and should be welcomed. Whilst preserving its older buildings the University must continue to engage in contemporary architectural debate. Just like Prince Charles.