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Iconic Oxford University Architecture Across the Ages

25th February 2016

Just this week, the brand new £30 million Blavatnik School of Government was officially unveiled. Apart from being the answer to a long time problem which saw staff, students and academics that were previously split across three different sites finally being housed together it was also another example of some of the finest architects of the day bringing their talents to Oxford, this time in the form of Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Last year, in May 2015, it was iconic British architect Zaha Hadid who wowed the world with the reveal of her shimmering, shining Investcorp Building, at the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

These modern masters are in very good company of course, as across the centuries many of their historical peers have also been called upon to add their unique vision to the Oxford University ‘Campus’. Here is a look at just some of that work:

New College, Oxford – William of Wykeham


Although the chances are very good that he had plenty of expert help in the 14th century, 1379 to be precise, when New College first opened its doors students, its architecture was credited to its founder, the then Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham. With much of the original structure still intact New College is considered to be one of the finest remaining examples of the English Perpendicular Gothic style and one of the most important Medieval buildings still standing in Europe.

And indeed, in its time, the building’s design was groundbreaking, as Wykeham was the first to lay out his college with its key buildings of Chapel, Hall, Library and sleeping rooms around a quadrangle, something that was copied by the founders of many other colleges across the world after that.

Sheldonian Theatre – Christopher Wren


In 1663 Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury approached a young architect about completing a long abandoned project idea for the university of Oxford at large; the creation of a special, single use building to be used to stage graduations and degree ceremonies.

Wren, already a very ambitious architect despite only having one completed building under his belt at that point was a graduate – and later fellow – of Gresham College, but as an astronomer rather than an architect. However, after a period of study in Paris he had rededicated himself to his new calling and the proposed theatre presented a wonderful opportunity.

Wren looked to the U-shaped open air theatres of ancient Rome for his inspiration but perhaps the most impressive thing about the building is the windows that line its eight sided cupola that offer the most impressive of views of the city beyond even to this day.

Radcliffe Camera – James Gibbs


Technically you could say that the now iconic Radcliffe Camera was the first example of a crowd sourced piece of architecture. Officially, it is attributed to James Gibbs, but it draws from earlier designs submitted by some of the other great architectural stars of the day, including Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, along with John Vanbrugh, Thomas Archer, James Thornhill and John James.

The trustees of the estate of John Radcliffe dragged their feet on the building and by the time they were finally ready to begin construction, most of the design candidates had either died or retired. Therefore, in 1736 Gibbs was hired (for the sum of £100 per annum) to oversee the project and given full access to all of the previously submitted works, included a completed design that Hawksmoor had gone as far as mocking up in miniature prior to his death a few months earlier. So how much of the final product was Gibbs work and how much was derived from others is debatable, but what is not in doubt is what an amazing building it was in the end – and still is.

Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution – Charles Robert Cockerell


This building is considered to be the finest example of a neoclassical building still standing in Oxford. Its creator Charles Robert Cockerell had been sent on something of a gap year himself as a student, spending 1810 traveling around Malta, Troy and Athens. He then stayed another year to help excavate the Temple of Aphaea in Aegina and by the time he returned to England it was fair to say that his personal architectural style was set, although he did have grave doubts about how well making use of Greek Revival architecture in nineteenth-century England would go down.

In creating what was originally simply known as the Taylor – but now houses the Ashmolean as well – Cockrell, who by 1841 was a rising star in the architectural world, was practically given free rein, so decided to execute the whole structure in the style of the Greek Ionic order. The resulting building is a masterpiece in Bath and Portland stone that still stands out brightly in the much busier Oxford of today.

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