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8 Types of Beautiful Architecture You Can See in Oxford

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Did you know that Oxford contains examples of every major architectural style in England from the Saxons to the present day?

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Oxford provides endless stunning examples of the way the old (sometimes nearly a thousand years old!) can harmonise beautifully with the new. Consider the walk from Oxford’s High Street, down Queen’s Lane, through New College Lane, emerging under the Bridge of Sighs: in doing that, you’ll have walked from neoclassical architecture, along a medieval passageway, under an Edwardian bridge to emerge in front of another neoclassical building, the Sheldonian. You’ll have experienced 600 years of architectural history, all in perfect harmony.

In this article, we look at a few of the styles of architecture that can found in or near the city of Oxford. Dates in brackets refer to the approximate period over which the building or buildings were designed and built.

1. Saxon – The Saxon Tower of St Michael at the North Gate (1040)

Visitors to the Anglo-Saxon tower can still see the door to the cell of the Bocardo Prison, where the Oxford Martyrs were imprisoned before their execution.

Visitors to the Anglo-Saxon tower can still see the door to the cell of the Bocardo Prison, where the Oxford Martyrs were imprisoned before their execution.

There’s very little Anglo-Saxon architecture left in the UK. No Anglo-Saxon secular buildings have survived, and there are only around 50 churches with major Anglo-Saxon architectural features remaining. Frequently what’s left is something as small as a doorway, or a section of wall. This is despite the length of time for which the Anglo-Saxon architecture was in use: the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England in the mid-5th century, and were conquered by the Normans in 1066. Anglo-Saxon architecture is usually simple and functional (with the exception of a few ornate crosses), while the Norman architecture that followed it was often much grander and built to make an impression beyond its basic function – which helped ensure its survival over the following centuries better than its Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford is particularly noteworthy, then, because instead of the usual small chunks of a building that might date back to Anglo-Saxon times, here we have a full Saxon tower, dated to 1040. It’s not a building that’s especially beautiful in its own right – its construction looks primitive to modern eyes, and the rest of the church, built in 1833, clashes a little with the tower. All the same, there is something awe-inspiring in the knowledge that it has stood for nearly a thousand years. Best of all, it’s open to visitors, so you can climb to the top and admire a view that visitors to Oxford have been enjoying for hundreds of years.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all EFL and English Culture articles."2. English Gothic – Magdalen College Tower (1492-1509)

We skip forward in time by a few hundred years to reach the stunning 44m high bell tower of Magdalen College, the tallest building in Oxford. Actually, we haven’t moved forward as far as this seems: the tower is in the English Gothic style, which lasted from around 1180 to 1520 – Magdalen College’s tower is a relatively late example.

Magdalen College on May morning 2007.

Magdalen College on May morning 2007.

If you were to ask the average person to describe the architectural style of Oxford, they would probably land on English Gothic. The Oxford Divinity Schools, Merton College Tower and New College Tower are all in an English Gothic style, and the later Gothic Revival (discussed further below) added more buildings that resemble English Gothic. It’s an architectural style characterised by vaulted ceilings, pointed arches, buttresses, elaborate tracery and – crucially for Oxford – spires.

Magdalen College Tower doesn’t have any buttresses, but it shows lots of the other features of English Gothic with its large, pointed windows with beautiful tracery (particularly remarkable given how hard it is to see the detail of the windows from either the top of the tower or the grounds), detailed carvings and spires. It’s also worth noting how seamlessly the tower blends with the rest of that section of the college, which was built in the 1880s by Thomas Garner, the architect who restored Yarnton Manor.

The tower also plays an important part in Oxford life: in an ongoing tradition that must date back nearly to the tower’s original construction, a choir sings from the top on May Morning while townspeople gather below.

3. Neoclassical – Queen’s College (1693-1737)

Admission to Queen’s College historically favoured students from Cumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire.

Admission to Queen’s College historically favoured students from Cumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire.

Neoclassical architecture is – as the name would suggest – strongly inspired by the architecture of classical antiquity, as well as the the architecture of Andrea Palladio. However, architecture more strictly inspired by Palladio is called Palladian (discussed below) and neoclassical architecture includes more aspects of Ancient Greek art. The terms are not interchangeable, but there is some overlap. Neoclassical architecture features symmetrical shapes, tall columns, domes, triangular pediments and porticos.

Queen’s College is a particularly early example of Neoclassical architecture in Britain, designed partly by Sir Christopher Wren (the architect who designed St Paul’s Cathedral) and Nicholas Hawksmoor. These two leading architects are sometimes more associated with English Baroque, a style similar to Neoclassical architecture but more dramatic and intense than the simpler cleaner styles of Neoclassical architecture; as with Palladian architecture, there are overlaps.

Queen’s College is unusual in that it is almost entirely built in the same architectural style; most colleges, especially medieval colleges like Queen’s, have a more eclectic mix. The features of Neoclassical architecture are evident in Queen’s from the symmetrical pediments that flank the High Street entrance to the college to the dome that caps the entrance, held aloft by pillars like a classical temple.

4. Baroque – Blenheim Palace (1705-1722)

Blenheim Palace was built to celebrate victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Blenheim Palace was built to celebrate victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.

England is not particularly known for Baroque architecture, which is more strongly associated with Mediterranean countries, particularly Italy. The Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries is also associated with art, literature, theatre and music. It’s art emphasised the dramatic use of light and shadow, intense emotion and sensationalism, while its music aimed for poetic power, turning religious themes into human experiences – and can also be identified by its use of the harpsichord. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is an excellent example of Baroque music.

While what does and doesn’t count as Baroque is debatable (as we saw in the point above), it’s pretty clear that Blenheim Palace is as Baroque as English architecture gets. We’re straying a little outside of Oxford here, but it seems worth it for a World Heritage Site. As Blenheim Palace and its contemporary, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, show, English Baroque emphasises symmetry and contains some of the features of Neoclassical architecture – but while looking at a Neoclassical building is usually calming, Baroque favours grandeur, flamboyance and drama. Blenheim Palace is grand and dramatic both inside and out, with very few surfaces left undecorated – making a lasting impression in true Baroque style.

5. Palladian – Radcliffe Camera (1737-1749)

Radcliffe Camera library specialises in scientific publications.

Radcliffe Camera library specialises in scientific publications.

Typically, architecture moved from the Palladian, to Baroque and Neoclassical styles – however, the architecture of Oxford demonstrates neatly how much these periods overlapped, and how the evolution of English architecture defies neat chronological separation. Palladian architecture is based on the style of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, and emphasises symmetry and perspective. It tends to be simpler and less ornamented than Neoclassical architecture (and much less ornamented than the Baroque style).

The Radcliffe Camera demonstrates Palladian principles perfectly, with pillars and a dome in a straightforward, symmetrical repeating pattern. It uses architectural tricks to create a sense that it is taller than it actually is; for instance, outside it appears to have three generous stories, whereas inside it has only two. Its true height can be gauged from the tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, next to it, but isn’t obvious from the ground.

6. Gothic Revival – Balliol College chapel (1857)

Balliol College Chapel contains some noteworthy stained glass windows. One window tells the legend of St Catherine, the patron saint of scholars, who is celebrated each year with a traditional dinner on 25th November.

Balliol College Chapel contains some noteworthy stained glass windows. One window tells the legend of St Catherine, the patron saint of scholars, who is celebrated each year with a traditional dinner on 25th November.

From the late 1740s in England, Gothic Revival architecture endured in popularity at least until the mid 19th century. As the name would suggest, it draws on the architecture of the Gothic period, with spires, lancet windows, vaulted ceilings and so on. Aside from the obvious wear of age, it can be difficult at first glance to tell the difference between a genuine Gothic cathedral and a Gothic revival imitation. This is neatly demonstrated by the history of Cologne cathedral: building work started in 1248, was abandoned with the cathedral unfinished in 1473, and restarted in the 19th century with the building finally complete in 1880. This was also a time of restoration of Gothic buildings, which can be seen extensively in Oxford. Other famous buildings of the Gothic revival include the University of Glasgow, the Palace of Westminster and Manchester’s Town Hall and John Rylands Library.

Balliol College chapel shows how the Gothic revival was apparent even in smaller buildings. The design was not popular, however, and in 1912 a serious offer was made to pay for demolition and reconstruction, with many people finding the stripey pattern on the outside unpleasant. The same architect, William Butterfield, designed Keble College, which was similarly used colours to striking effect and was similarly unpopular. Rumour has it that a society was founded to destroy the college brick by brick, with membership gained only once you had supplied your first brick. They appear to have failed, since the college is still standing.

7. Functionalist – St Catherine’s College (1962)

The first undergraduates were admitted to St Catherine's College in 1962 while it was still under construction. They were reportedly quickly dubbed the ‘Dirty Thirty’, due to the lack of running hot water in the college.

The first undergraduates were admitted to St Catherine’s College in 1962 while it was still under construction. They were reportedly quickly dubbed the ‘Dirty Thirty’, due to the lack of running hot water in the college.

Functionalism in architecture holds that – as the name would suggest – all aspects of a building should be guided by its function. The principle is that if a building serves its function perfectly, architectural beauty follows. This is probably best described in terms of its opposite: many Gothic Revival buildings incorporate flying buttresses that provide nothing whatsoever by means of support for the wall they are attached to (or in a handful of cases, aren’t actually attached to at all!). The buttress is included solely for decorative purposes. This is the antithesis of Functionalism, where nothing that is not required for the function of the building should be included. This can result in buildings that are elegant and attractive in their simplicity, but also in buildings that are drab and unappealing to look at.

St Catherine’s College is a rare example of Functionalist architecture in Britain, as the style thrived primarily in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Scandinavia. It was designed by a Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen, whose design for the college extended to things like chairs and cutlery (also in a Functionalist style) as well as the college buildings. The principle on which the college was built was that it would follow the traditional layout of an Oxford college, with buildings arranged around central quads, a style that descends from the layout of monastery cloisters. At the same time, it would use cutting edge architectural styles in echo of its motto: Nova et Vetera, or ‘the new and the old’. Its glass and concrete buildings are entirely unornamented, and even the pond that you cross before entering the main quad follows a strict geometric shape.

8. Postmodernist – Saïd Business School (2001)

Saïd Business School, Oxford.

The nature of postmodern architecture is a little hard to define. It abandons the strict rules of movements such as formalism and instead enjoys a certain amount of wit; this is tongue-in-cheek architecture, embracing ornamentation and symbolism. One example is the University of Cambridge’s Seeley Historical Library, which looks like an open book. Another feature of postmodernist architecture is knowing references to other buildings in the design, like an architect’s equivalent of a an easter egg in a film.

The design of the Saïd Business School is similarly knowing. The product of a £70 million donation to the University of Oxford from Saudi-Syrian businessman Wafic Saïd, it consciously references the donor’s heritage with a ziggurat (ultimately inspired by the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, in the Persian empire) but also the traditional design of an Oxford college or a medieval monastery, with a cloistered garden. Beyond this, there’s a nod to classical design in the form of an amphitheatre. In this way, the business school fulfils all the requirements of a postmodern building: it serves its function, but it also makes a statement that can be read by those with knowledge of the architectural history it references.

Oxford Royale Summer Schools students will be able to see all of these stunning architectural delights and many more during their time on a 2016 summer course. If you are interested in applying, click here to browse our courses.

image credits: st michael northgate, magdalen college tower, queens college, blenheim palace, balliol college chapel, said business school.






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