Why we should learn to love Oxford’s architectural failures


Every college has its dirty little secret. Normally tucked away at the far end of the furthest quad, you can see across Oxford the respective mistakes of colleges’ loony forebears in the 1960s. “Good joke, guys” would be my initial reaction to most of them if I did not have to live in one of their number. It was quite something, arriving at a stunningly beautiful (ok, moderately stunningly beautiful) college, a key factor in my choice of college, to be presented with the keys to Staircase 4. The looks of sympathy I got on arrival were an indicator of things to come. A spiral staircase, a Soviet-esque roof suitable for the handover of spies and another spiral staircase later, I was in my room and pleasantly surprised that at least it was marginally less prison-like in its decor than the hallway. Perhaps the most depressing aspect was that it does not have the modcons one would expect a modern building to possess: the hot water, when not coloured red by what I presume is rust, is freezing cold. It is another two spiral staircases, hard enough to navigate whilst sober, to get to the two loos for fifteen people. Indeed, in my freshers meeting with the College President, he was most enthused when he mentioned knocking the entire monstrosity down. It does, after all, ruin the so-called ‘architectural integrity’ of the place. 

In a desperate attempt to see the positive side of all this, I will now try to justify why these 1960s monstrosities, from St John’s infamous Beehive building to my very own, humble Staircase 4, add to the richness and diversity of Oxford Life. The first point to make is that it could be seen as a massive group-bonding exercise. Whilst we are all admittedly suffering, at least we can find mutual consolation in the fact that we are all suffering together. In fresher’s week, once the usual subject-staircase-place of origin formula was used up, we filled those awkward pauses with endless moaning about the hot water system or the paucity of loos. It was, to use that ghastly phrase, what one would call an ‘ice-breaker’. 

These 1960s monstrosities are also a vital component in the overall architectural character of the place. For, without them, Oxford would be dull in its uniform beauty. The monstrosities fulfil an important function; by breaking up the homogenous architectural experience, they render the 16th century turrets and stain-glass windows all the more impressive by virtue of comparison. Indeed, I appreciate the beauty of the view outside my window all the more by the relative hideousness of the building in which I am sitting. (Incidentally, one of the great bonuses of living in one of these 1960s buildings is that you do not have to look at them.) Furthermore, they are proof that Oxford is a living, breathing city. It is very easy to see Oxford as a city of the past, a monument to the nation’s heritage. Yet, it is easy to forget that it remains an active institution, filled to the brim with young people and a sprinkling of academics. The disconnect between the two is bridged by the less tasteful elements of the city’s past and, indeed, such elements showcase the full range of the city’s history, in a way that the orthodox beauty of traditional Oxford cannot. On the same train of thought, the architectural imperfections of Oxford make Oxford seem just a little less daunting and more welcoming to timid freshers who descend upon this alien city. 

Several of my fellow inmates, and independently of each other, came up with the following interesting psychological angle: living in architectural-hell in your first year means that your second year accomodation will nearly always prove a step up. It is a natural progression in many colleges to go from shoddy building in the first year to beautiful, stereotypical Oxford building in the second – although perhaps this does not apply to St Catz. Not only does this transition make you appreciate the second year accommodation to a much greater extent, but it also makes the burden of first year accommodation all the more bearable.

So, next time you bemoan the poor architectural choices of your respective colleges, remember that they, as much as the ancient quads, are part-and-parcel of the Oxford experience, and, most likely, where some of your best memories of Oxford will be made. And even after a few weeks, the sharp edges of Staircase 4 are beginning to grow on me – It is home after all.


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