Yes: Max Kitson
On entering the Teddy Hall front quad, it is impossible not to marvel at the sheer obnoxiousness of the structure that towers before you. A multi-storey concrete phallus, with flagrant disregard for the architectural coherence of the college, looms above the picturesque, centuries-old quad and basks in its own hideousness.
Sadly, Teddy Hall is far from alone. A litany of colleges – from Balliol to Brasenose, from Christ Church to St Johns – have been scarred by Brutalist architecture, imposed upon them in a collective fi t of madness in the post-war decades. Their only redeeming feature is the low construction cost, but the notion that something as complex, significant and delicate as education should be reduced to a matter of money is detrimental to the University, and indeed to society as a whole.
You may wonder if demolishing a building for aesthetic reasons can truly be an efficient use of scarce resources. Nonetheless, in this case the benefits of demolition outweigh the costs.
Oxford colleges are more than buildings. They are works of art, and their beauty has inspired generation after generation of students at the University. The fundamental role of Oxford’s architecture is captured in the emblematic phrase ‘dreaming spires’. It is enough to read Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Thyrsis’, from which the phrase was taken, to understand the profound impact of the city’s surroundings on students. One must wonder what Mr. Arnold would think of Oxford’s modern monstrosities.
For Oxford’s most beautiful buildings, every last detail has been carefully sculpted in pursuit of aesthetic perfection. The city’s Brutalist architecture revels in its disregard for this shared pursuit of its predecessors, with its drab greyness and thoughtless edges. As the author Bill Bryson put it, “We’ve been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let’s have an ugly one for a change.”
In order to sustain its position as the world’s leading university, Oxford must be able to attract the world’s brightest students and academics. Of course, it would be untrue to say that architecture is the primary concern of the brightest minds. Nonetheless, the architecture of an institution says much about its ethos. The worst examples of Oxford’s modern architecture symbolise all that is undesirable in a university – thoughtlessness, lack of creativity and an acceptance of mediocrity. Demolishing these buildings and replacing them with more congruous architecture would send a clear message that Oxford wholeheartedly rejects such attributes.
Demolishing these buildings, and suitably replacing them, would certainly not be cheap. Nonetheless, the University and its constituent colleges have the means to do it, with endowment assets totaling £4.2bn. Benefactors could also play a significant role in financing this redevelopment project.
Oxford has an ability, unrivalled by its counterparts in the UK, to attract large donations for specific projects. Len Blavatnik, Britain’s richest man, gave £75m for the construction of the new school of government, while Wafic Saïd, a Saudi businessman, donated £20m for the construction of the eponymous business school. Only a few such donations would be required to cover the costs of redevelopment.
Demolishing Oxford’s modern architecture could also indirectly generate revenues for the University, which would help the redevelopment scheme to recoup its costs. Tourists come from all around the world to visit the University. Demolishing Oxford’s modern architecture would bolster the reputation of the University as a tourist destination of exceptional beauty. In the long term, this would attract more tourists to the University, in turn boosting the revenue generated by the colleges from tourism.
It is worth considering what should replace Oxford’s modern monstrosities when they no longer stand. The sine qua non is that the replacement buildings must be congruous with their surroundings. Nonetheless, forward-looking architecture is acceptable and even welcome, provided it acknowledges its surroundings.
The Saïd Business School is an example of a forward-looking building that, while not perfect, has at least attempted to acknowledge the heritage of the University. Although it was built recently, it has a tower and a quad in a nod to the architectural heritage of the University.
At the core of the problem with much of Oxford’s modern architecture lies its callous disregard for Oxford’s architectural traditions; the boxy, grotesque modern buildings at the back of Balliol College are an insult to the imposing elegance and charming grace of the dining hall beside them. It is not enough just to say that we should demolish these insensitive buildings: rather, we should feel obliged to do so out of sheer respect for the city and the University.
No: Freddie Hopkinson
A couple of weeks before I first came to Oxford, I was chatting with one of my neighbours’ sons about which college I had chosen to go to at Oxford. He had just looked around the University on an open day and, when I mentioned Trinity, he went on about how beautiful the old college was “apart from that ugly modern block by the library.” Sure enough, a fortnight later, when I first arrived at Trinity, I was shown to my room: the top floor of the College’s 60s accommodation block next to the library.
Over the course of my first year at Oxford that “ugly modern block by the library” became my home. For all its surface wear, I quickly found that the Cumberbatch Building was worth a lot more to the College than it was given credit for. Built in 1966 from the designs of the Church and College architects, Maguire and Murray, the block’s layout fostered a communal atmosphere amongst the freshers who lived in it. With shared washing facilities at the top of the tower, a central staircase, and rooms in close proximity, the tower block encouraged us to get to know each other in a way that a lot of older housing blocks fail to do.
By 2014, it may have had its problems with its heating system, but the building still offered an interesting alternative to the cell like divisions of many older college housing blocks. What made the building feel peculiarly modern was that it seemed to have a social purpose that was greater than the housing of individuals – it recognised the need for university architecture to help foster the academic communities that live in it. Writing from a significantly more isolated section of the supposedly ‘aesthetic’ main building in Trinity, I would be sad to see modern architecture of the Cumberbatch Building’s variety gone.
The term ‘modern architecture’ is often lazily used as a pejorative term to describe any building after 1900 that doesn’t comply with someone’s conservative views of what buildings should be like. When people attack ‘modern architecture’ in Oxford they often simplify the great range of modern, postmodern, neo-classical, constructivist, de-constructivist, and many more twentieth century genres of architecture into a single binary against what came before. Without thinking about the complexities of Oxford’s twentieth century architecture, those calling for the demolition of ‘modern architecture’ ignore the diversity of Oxford’s past. Equally, by drawing such a contrast between Oxford’s ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ buildings, reactionaries forget about the architectural diversity of the university’s pre-twentieth century legacy. Arguably, the Radcliff e Camera is as different from Brasenose College in style as the Saïd Business School is from Old Tom at Christ Church.
Writing in the C+ supplement on Oxford’s architecture a couple of weeks ago, architectural historian Dr. Matthew Walker argued that at some point, every building in Oxford has been new. If we were to demolish every trace of Oxford’s twentieth century architectural record, we would in effect be demolishing an important part of our University’s historic legacy. If models of Oxford’s ‘modern architecture’ are slowly emerging as sources on our institution’s dynamic experience of the twentieth century, it would be tantamount to the burning of history books to blindly demolish them. Buildings like James Stirling’s constructivist Florey Building at Queen’s are important because they show us how the people that commissioned these sort of buildings envisaged the University’s role at a certain point in time. To deny twentieth century buildings space in Oxford’s urban landscape would be to reject 100 years of intellectual development’s role in the University’s history.
Beyond the issue that demolishing every ‘modern’ building in Oxford would leave a lot of faculties and students without a home lies the more theoretical problem of how our architecture defines our identity. If we were to get rid of anything that remotely marks a break from Oxford’s tourist image as ‘the city of dreaming spires’, we would be making it clear that we were afraid of change. Should we look to demolish modern buildings that juxtapose against more traditional images of Oxford life, we would be breaking down our architectural dialogues with the past.
Part of what makes Oxford such an exciting city to walk around is the fact that over the last century, modern works of architecture have challenged sentimental images of the city. Traditional Oxford streets are enriched by subtle modern architecture, just as traditional scholarship is supplemented by more recent research. Working to deny Oxford’s development through the demolition of supposedly ‘modern’ architecture would represent a betrayal of the University’s continued pursuit of intellectual development. Ultimately, the demolition of Oxford’s ‘modern’ legacy would stand for a sentimental rejection of all that has been new in the last hundred years.
As I write, modernity itself is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Glass structures like the new Blavatnik School of Government are just as alien to the design of my first year accommodation block as its communal spirit was to the aristocratic housing of Trinity’s main building. As we move through what some have begun to call a postmodern cityscape, it has become fashionable to look back on modernism as an ugly intrusion on Oxford’s built landscape. In my view, the demolition of Oxford’s twentieth century architecture, unfairly generalised as ‘modern’, would set a dangerous precedent for our relationship with the past. Instead of looking for our bulldozers when we approach that “ugly modern block by the library,” we should listen to its story. Oxford’s twentieth century urban legacy is far too interesting to be wantonly removed.