Inspired by Rowan Moore’s article on recent Oxford architecture, I set off to see some of its new buildings – not straightforward because the Oxford colleges guard their privacy even more than they did pre-COVID.
I have become interested in the question why so much new architecture in London is so bad – cheapskate, standardised, disregarding of its surroundings whereas in Oxford (and Cambridge) so much of it is so good: well-considered, beautifully crafted, sensitive to history and its surroundings. Part of it is money, of course. But not all of it is as highly crafted as the new Wright and Wright library at St. John’s. The new Anniversary Building at St. Hilda’s doesn’t look or feel very expensive – just interesting and with enough irregularity, inflection and ornament to give it character.
I started with the new Alison Brooks building for Exeter College, tucked into Worcester Place, off Walton Street:-
Then, I went to St. Hilda’s, which has in the past suffered from being on a side street off the Cowley roundabout. But Gort Scott have done a very good job of giving the college a public identity with a tower with eye-catching filigree decoration, integrating the existing medley of historic buildings by putting a new building in the middle (‘the third sister’), and opening the college up to its view across the River Cherwell to Christ Church, Magdalen and Merton with a subtly asymmetric glass pavilion by the river.
And the view to the Radcliffe Camera and University Church:-
Finally, I was generously given a whistlestop tour of the new St. John’s Library, which is hard to photograph, not least because it was drizzling, but felt beautifully well considered, joining the historic library up to the new library through what had been a book store and providing a variety of different reading spaces in a building whose external façades weren’t allowed windows on either side. Amazingly high quality craft woodwork, the quality of detailing one doesn’t often see:-