Gropius and Christ’s

In reading about Gropius, I have been interested to find out more about the context surrounding the decision of Christ’s College to turn down a set of proposals for a new building on Hobson Street, drawn up and presented to the Fellows by Walter Gropius on 2 March 1937, ten days before he set sail for America and regarded by his partner in professional practice, Maxwell Fry, as one of the reasons why he left.

But the story is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not quite so simple. The college had commissioned a set of plans from Oswald P. Milne, a much more conservative architect who had worked with Lutyens. Conrad Waddington, one of the younger fellows, an evolutionary biologist with wide cultural interests, including expertise in Morris dancing, had recently divorced. Through his close friendship with John and Myfanwy Piper, he had met Justin Blanco White, a young, avant garde architect who he married. She had studied at the Architectural Association in the late 1920s and corresponded with Gropius ‘in connection with a book about housing’. He suggested that the college should consider alternative plans drawn up by their friend, Gropius, as an international modernist and recently arrived émigré.

The then Master of the College, Charles Darwin, grandson of the Charles Darwin, described in a letter to the Warden of All Souls, who was also planning to commission Gropius, how ‘The whole college was torn into fragments with passionate hatred of one or both of the architects’. As it happens, this was an occupational hazard of the College which had recently been torn apart by the election of its new Master, as described by C.P. Snow, one of the fellows, in The Masters.

Gropius’s scheme was rejected by the Fellows by thirteen votes to eight.

(I am grateful for this information not so much to Fiona MacCarthy’s biography which treats the episode cursorily, but to a much more detailed article she refers to by Alan Powers in a volume of essays on Twentieth-Century Architecture in Oxford and Cambridge).

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