For most, to think of Oxford is to think of its historic architecture, from the Anglo Saxon Tower of St. Michael and Christchurch’s twelfth century cathedral, to the neo-classical buildings of the Victorian era. The city centre has retained an unusually consistent aesthetic, largely thanks to the limestone favoured by centuries of architects. It has served as a backdrop for ‘Harry Potter’, ‘His Dark Materials’, and ‘Brideshead Revisited’; for a lot of prospective students, the idea of studying in ‘the Hogwarts Library’ (the Duke Humphrey’s) is no small part of the university’s appeal.
But the dreaming spires are only one side of the story. They might dominate the skyline, along with the dome of the Radcliffe Camera and the Magdalen bell tower, but the concrete Denys Wilkinson building is just as striking, and many newer colleges are more evocative of Soviet apartment blocks than the courtyards and cloisters of a fictional wizarding school. Often, buildings that don’t conform to the city’s historical aesthetic are decried as ‘eyesores’. At best, they are treated as functional, but unfortunate. They rarely appear on prospectuses or postcards, with the oldest, most typically picturesque buildings tending to take centre stage.
Most colleges have an ‘ugly’ quad built during the 1960s or 70s, tucked out of sight, and tourists are often unaware that the Bodleian Library complex includes the brutalist EFL as well as the Radcliffe Camera and Old Bod. For those who live in North Oxford, Margery Fry and Elizabeth Nuffield House (the concrete accommodation block overlooking Little Clarendon Street) is as much a part of their surroundings as Wellington Square, or St. John’s College. Yet the description of the block on Somerville’s website is almost apologetic: ‘As for the architecture, well, it was the 1960’s, everyone was doing it!’.
The city’s ‘eyesores’ are hardly the product of thoughtless design. St. Catherine’s College, opened in 1962, was the brainchild of Danish architect, Arne Jacobson. He designed not only the building, but the furniture, lampshades, and even the cutlery, guided by the principle that everything should be both highly functional, and aesthetically pleasing. The result is a building that captures the spirit of an Oxford college in an innovative way, using modern materials and a more open plan layout than is typical of older institutions. The quad was designed so as to integrate the building with its environment, and the grounds were declared a Registered Garden in 1994. Jacobson’s decision to build a college without surrounding walls is indicative of the level of consideration that informed his design. According to the architect, when visiting the city, he noticed that the students’ gowns were often in tatters. When he asked why, they explained that they had to climb over the college walls when they came back late, and that the gowns were useful for covering the glass shards protruding from them. St. Catherine’s might not be as ostentatious as medieval colleges that teem with gargoyles and boast ornate facades, but it is certainly not antithetical to the principle that academic institutions ought to be aesthetically inspiring.
Perhaps it is this contrast that makes Oxford’s concrete structures such a talking point, because they are hardly unique to the city. Across the UK, the need to repair damage caused by the Blitz gave rise to rapid rebuilding efforts during the 1950s, and concrete was a practical choice: cheap, relatively durable, and easily cast into shape. Brutalist structures are far more prevalent in areas that were more heavily bombed, such as London, Manchester, and Southampton. Their popularity declined from the mid-1970s onwards, with brutalism coming to be seen as a mark of poor taste. Concrete ages poorly, showing water damage and decay, and is often associated with the perceived deprivation and hardship of Soviet Europe. Certainly, brutalism often went hand in hand with socialist ideology, and proliferated in Yugoslavia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. It was considered a means of ensuring good living conditions for all at minimal cost. In the capitalist West, ‘communist’ has often been a sufficiently pejorative adjective to consign the brutalist movement to the category of failed architectural experiments.
Often these criticisms are misplaced, resting on the assumption that because brutalist buildings are functional, they are the result of austere pragmatism as opposed to more elaborate architectural styles that embody lofty ideals. But it is inaccurate to characterise the concrete landscapes of the 1950-80s as an elevation of the practical over the aesthetic. The intellectual climate that gave rise to brutalism was inherently utopian and ideological. The name itself is somewhat misleading, suggesting violent or austere connotations, when it is in fact derived from ‘béton brut’, a French term for raw concrete. It was coined by the critic Reyner Banham to describe the movement of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Alison and Peter Smithson, who sought to create simple buildings without unnecessary ornamentation, characterised by geometric shapes, sharp lines, and modular design. Functionalism was certainly a driving force; brutalist buildings first and foremost fulfilled their purpose. But brutalism also espoused positive values; central to the movement was the idea that buildings should honestly express their materials. This was a conscious rejection of styles considered bourgeoise and associated with earlier forms of government, in-keeping with the post-war emphasis on social welfare, cooperation, and equality.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that brutalism is seeing a revival. There are 836k Instagram posts tagged ‘#brutalism’, and photography books such as Christopher Herwig’s ‘Soviet Bus Stops’ have garnered considerable attention. With the economic downturn of 2008, and the political disillusionment of young people in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the appeal of brutalist idealism is understandable. With growing appreciation for the buildings described by Prince Charles as ‘piles of concrete’ will Oxford’s ‘eyesores’ come to be seen as integral to its architectural wealth, rather than antithetical to it? Ought we to treat the Denys Wilkinson building and St. Catherine’s College as a celebrated chapter in Oxford’s aesthetic history, or as evidence of a period better forgotten?
The challenge of how to build in a city so saturated with history is not a new one, and the brutalists of the 1960s were not the first to face criticism for altering Oxford’s urban landscape. The Oxford Movement emerged in the 19th century, amongst members of the Church of England whose ideology would eventually develop into Anglo-Catholicism, and made a decisive mark on Oxford’s skyline. It originated at Oriel College, where a group of young fellows including John Henry Newman and William Palmer attached themselves to the older John Keble. They advocated a revival of ‘catholic’ thought and practice, railing against the idea that state ought to have supremacy over the Church in ecclesiastical matters. This was accompanied by a renewed interest in medieval social structures and consequently, its architecture. In the Cambridge Camden Society’s journal, ‘The Ecclesiologist’, John Mason Neale argued that Churches should only be built in the Gothic style, because it reflected the religious priorities of striving for heaven through prayer, sacrament, and the Christian virtues. These ideas were influential, and gothic revivalism became increasingly popular during the nineteenth century. Pusey House Chapel and St. Barnabas Church exemplify the style, using modern materials to imitate the design of medieval churches. Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to express the Oxford Movement’s ideology through architecture is Keble College, built during the 1870s in memory of the eponymous churchman. Its architect, William Butterfield, was closely associated with the movement. In the words of William Whyte, his design sought ‘to make visible the dogmas and creeds of the Catholic Church’. The chapel is particularly impressive, with its high, vaulted ceiling evoking the twelfth and thirteenth century churches designed to inspire awe and elevate the soul. Whereas brutalism abhors unnecessary decoration, proponents of gothic architecture, such as Abbot Suger (1091-1151), believed that contemplating material beauty allowed the mind to ascend, and apprehend divine truths.
However, Butterfield had more in common with his brutalist successors than the elaborate décor of Keble College might suggest. Students have mocked the building for looking like a lasagne, because its redbrick exterior is punctuated by stripes of yellow and blue. This was a controversial choice at the time. Supposedly, when the new college was unveiled, it was so hated that students at St. John’s founded ‘The Destroy Keble Society’, with the aim of demolishing it one brick at a time. The material had partly been chosen because it was cheaper than stone, but Butterfield was also driven by idealism: Keble was admirable because it was honest, and truthful, a guiding principle of neo-Gothic architecture. Rather than adding an ornate façade, he had designed a building whose decorations were integral to its structure. The brick was self-ornamenting, and its beauty was not used to hide its structure. At the centre of gothic revivalism was a conflation of ethics and aesthetics characteristic of medieval thought: the truth of a building was inherently beautiful. The college also shared many of the social principles embodied by brutalist architecture: it was built as cheaply as possible so that those from poorer backgrounds could attend, and the large dining hall was a reaction against the habits of aristocratic students who ate in their rooms, attended to by servants. Criticism partly arose from elitist opposition to that vision, and one wonders if similar attitudes are responsible for some of the 21st-century complaints about 1960s architecture. Both celebrating the middle ages and signalling reform, Keble College evoked both tradition and progress.
This reflects a tension within academia itself. While scholarship seeks to further knowledge, institutions such as Oxford are often accused of being out of touch. The university has its roots in a curriculum that exalted the authority of early church fathers, ancient philosophers and mathematicians. Whilst a lot has changed since the middle ages, the debate about the role of the canon in academia is ongoing, and sometimes controversial, with students questioning the Western-centric reading lists that are often the default. The Theology faculty changed its name to ‘The Faculty of Theology and Religion’ in 2012, to reflect a more global approach, and there is ongoing discussion in the Philosophy Faculty as to whether an historical or conceptual approach ought to be taught. Students wear archaic academic garb (sub-fusc) to exams, but it has been gender neutral since 2012, again reflecting a reverence for tradition tempered by a desire to evolve with the times.
Unlike the Oxford Movement and its architecture, brutalism does not attempt to reconcile those forces. Whilst Butterfield sought to enjoin medieval values with reforming ideals, brutalism unapologetically looks forwards, celebrating the new and disregarding the old. It is sometimes associated with futurism, an early twentieth-century movement that emerged in Italy, although while brutalism is underpinned by socialist values, the latter came to ally itself with fascism. The futurists celebrated invention and progress, and favoured art and architecture that expressed movement. In his provocative 1909 Futurist Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti called for the destruction of everything old, including museums and libraries, in favour of industrial landscapes. Rather than seeking to build a lasting legacy, the futurists envisaged their successors following suit, destroying what had come before them in pursuit of progress. There was certainly a darker side to the movement’s idealism, with its celebration of violence and struggle as essential for development. Whilst the brutalists embraced these principles of progress, they emphasised the importance of humane social structures. In light of recent discourse surrounding the removal of statues celebrating Britain’s colonial past, and calls to acknowledge that so much of Oxford’s iconic architecture has profited from the oppression of the colonised, the appeal of a movement such as brutalism, that refuses to glorify its predecessors, is understandable.
The widespread disdain for both Keble College, and the city’s brutalist architecture raises the question of whether it will ever be possible to design new buildings for Oxford without being accused of erecting yet another ‘eyesore’. Must architects simply imitate the aesthetic of the medieval university? The tension between tradition and progress is evident in many of the university’s newest buildings. The Blavatnik School of Government, designed by Herzog and Meuron and unveiled in 2016, was described by the RIBA as ‘a modern cathedral of learning’. Much as the Keble College chapel expresses religious ideals through its architecture, Blavatnik was designed to communicate a commitment to democracy and political progress. As the RIBI Journal surmises, ‘It’s about democracy, so it’s circular, political transparency, so it’s glass, and Oxford, so there’s stone’. Its glass exterior reflects the more typically ‘Oxford-esque’ University Press building opposite, while the almost futuristic structure is striking in itself. It both literally mirrors the historic university, and envisions its future. Whether new generations of residents deem it worthy to join the ranks of the Bodleian Library and Christchurch Cathedral, or dismiss it as a misguided blemish marring the university’s archaic beauty is yet to be seen.
Ultimately, it is in-keeping with a city whose architecture embodies the ongoing tension between tradition and progress that is so often at the centre of academic institutions. It is a centuries-old question posed not only by the city’s students and academics, but by its streets and its skyline.
Artwork by Rachel Jung