Mid-1960s college buildings with contemporary gardens and quadrangle, the whole by Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971).
Reasons for Designation
The designed landscape at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, designed by Arne Jacobsen, and laid out in the mid-1960s, is included on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest at Grade I, for the following principal reasons:
* as a physical manifestation of Arne Jacobsen’s comprehensive plan for the college, which was constructed entirely anew in the mid-1960s on a previously undeveloped site.
* as a highly unusual and complete integration of architecture and landscape, the whole created on a 3m square grid which unifies the buildings and landscape in scale and planning;
* the refined design includes buildings and landscape as a single, cohesive entity, with an overall concept in design, colours and materials; the landscape includes garden rooms linking the buildings, walls which extend the buildings’ form and materials into the landscape, and elements from the landscape are reflected in the buildings;
* strongly influenced by garden design in his native Denmark, the apparently simple, rational layout of Jacobsen’s landscape demonstrates real quality in design and execution;
* the work of one of the world’s greatest architects and designers of the mid-C20, Arne Jacobsen, who considered it his favourite commission.
Degree of survival:
* despite some minor changes to areas of planting and paving, the structure of the landscape survives almost entirely, along with much of the original planting scheme, which includes carefully sited specimen trees; it retains its character and the strong identity created by Jacobsen, which also gives it the flexibility to sustain minor alterations.
* with the Grade I-listed buildings of St Catherine’s College, with which the landscape was designed as an integrated site.
St Catherine’s origins lay in a Delegacy of 1868 for ‘unattached’ students unable to pay college fees. The students founded a social club, called St Catharine’s from the hall where it met, and further clubs adopted the name in its modern spelling. In 1931 the Delegacy became the St Catherine’s Society, which appointed Alan Bullock, Dean of New College, as its Censor or warden in 1952. He quickly recognised that in the post-war era, when increasing numbers of students had grants but the cost of digs was rising fast, the need was for more accommodation. In April 1956 he proposed a new undergraduate college that would be equally balanced between the sciences and the arts, marking a shift towards science at Oxford. It was formally constituted in 1962.
Because St Catherine’s grew out of the University itself, the University Grants Committee was permitted to offer funding towards the site and study bedrooms, but money for the college’s common areas had to come from private sources. These initially were dominated by British industry, attracted by the emphasis on science. The Ford Foundation presented $100,000, and an alumnus, Dr Rudolph Light, gave over $1,000,000 just as rising costs threatened the scheme in June 1961. Money for the initial landscaping and planting came from the Coulthurst Trust.
In October 1956 Merton College offered six acres of Holywell Great Meadow close to the city centre. By 1959 a 7.9 acre site had been secured, bounded to the west by an arm of the River Cherwell canalised in the seventeenth century to serve a flour mill, with road access only from the north. It was an almost featureless field, but the south-western boundary with Magdalen College was determined by the remains of a Civil War ravelin built to defend the flour mill. This earthwork may extend slightly into the southern endge of the present St Catherine's College landscape. The land was raised when Oxford City Council used it as a tip in the late 1930s before adding topsoil, and in the late 1940s it was used as allotments. Povl Ahm of the engineers Ove Arup and Partners built the flat Napper’s Bridge leading on to the site in 1960-1.
A sub-committee of the University’s Committee on Elevations and the Choice of Architects, established in 1957 amidst a growing enthusiasm to go modern, was appointed to find an architect, aided by the university surveyor, Jack Lankester. Bullock had seen well-made new university buildings on a research trip to the United States and thought English architecture tame in comparison, while Lankester’s interest in modern furniture had drawn him to make several visits to Denmark. An American architect seemed out of reach, but one from Denmark seemed possible. On behalf of ‘a majority of the Committee [which] would like to see a Danish architect at any rate considered’, in June 1958 Lankester approached Ove Arup for advice. Bullock later intimated that he had already been seduced by images of work by Scandinavian architects in the press. He and his committee considered 37 British architects, before on 5 November 1958 flying to Copenhagen for a two-day inspection of buildings by Arne Jacobsen, Jørn Utzon, C. F. Møller, Vilhelm Wohlert, and Nils and Eva Koppel. Nothing could compare with Arne Jacobsen. ‘Jacobsen’s [Munkegård] school is better than Sheppard’s, his house the best the committee saw. The care over detail is something that other Danes show, but Jacobsen more so.’ Denmark’s social modernism symbolised the egalitarianism that Bullock stood for in Oxford. In Jacobsen’s work, design embraces furniture, light fittings and landscape gardening as well as architecture. This homogeneity appealed to Lankester and Bullock, and as early as February 1959 they proposed that Jacobsen should design furniture and fittings, and also the landscaping. Philip Dowson was persuaded to work ‘in association’ with Jacobsen, but withdrew in September. Instead Lankester liaised with Jacobsen and his assistant Knud Holscher, and later with Peter Denney, Jacobsen’s assistant who drew out and labelled most of the plans in English.
Bullock’s schedule for St Catherine’s borrowed the long, central court with circular lawn in the middle of it from New College, and shows how much else he contributed to the design. In particular he asked for three- or four-storey quadrangles, but with the fourth side left open. Bullock’s open quadrangle was refined by Jacobsen as two parallel ranges of residential accommodation enclosing the site on its longest sides, with the communal facilities set in individual buildings down the middle. The northern end is blocked by the Senior and Junior Common Rooms, of load-bearing brick and placed either side of the kitchen where all three could be easily accessed from the service drive and dining hall. To the south of this lie the library and lecture theatre block. The SCR and a separate master’s house reached their final location only in the plans of February 1960, which also made the library and lecture blocks the same size. The hall has a similar overall size, but without a set-back ground floor to provide a covered walkway it appears larger. Bullock delayed building the lecture block until he found sponsorship from Bernard Sunley.
Covered walkways set between brick piers provide partial stops in the long north-south vistas between the central and outer ranges, and have parallels in Jacobsen’s work at Munkegård School in Gentofte (1952-6), and Nyager School in Rødovre (1959-65). The dominant water feature is a canal which separates the western residential range from the entrance drive and master’s house. At the pivot between the entrance drive and the service entrance is a circular bicycle shed, which with the circular lawn in the main quadrangle are the principal non-linear elements. Only the bell tower makes a counterpoise to the low-rise scheme, an essential element for Jacobsen.
Bullock specified brick for the buildings, as offering the maximum benefits of structural repetition, and thus cohesion, without loss of design freedom. Jacobsen insisted that only 2-inch bricks would give the right scale to the low walls, and the Uxbridge flints he approved in January 1961 were the only ones in Britain close to his desired greenish-yellow colourway. The multi-storey buildings are all formed of pre-cast reinforced concrete frames, which provided a 3-metre grid that extended from the layout of the rooms to the concrete paviours outside. Jacobsen approved the design of every detail of furnishing and furniture that included a new model called the ‘Oxford chair’. The master’s house was originally clad in plywood, while the continuous floor to ceiling glazing of the study bedrooms proved problematic, and was replaced in 2004-2005.
Jacobsen’s attention to every detail extended to the external planting. He produced a detailed planting plan in August 1962, which was modified in 1963 by Dr Barrie Juniper from the Department of Botany (but then working for ICI) who Bullock knew from the Society. Juniper acknowledged in 1996 that ‘Jacobsen forced us to think, as we had never been challenged before, in terms of shapes, textures, shades of green.’ However, Jacobsen’s planting scheme was more suited to dry, sandy Copenhagen conditions than the alkaline, waterlogged Oxford site, and while the emphasis on contrasts of leaf shape, colour and texture remained, Juniper also responded to the college’s demands for some roses, to give an ‘English’ touch. Other correspondence in the college archives shows that Jacobsen was interested in planting bamboos (a few survive near the entrance), and that Jack Lankester also consulted ‘his friend’ Sylvia Crowe in 1960. The water gardens were completed in July 1966, and the JCR Committee borrowed the bronze, ‘Archaean’, from Barbara Hepworth, later bought for the college.
After fifty years, Jacobsen’s framework of paving and yew hedges remains, breaking up the space into garden rooms and effective as windbreaks. The landscaping took years to be established – the Cedar of Lebanon in the central quadrangle is the fourth. More changes followed Jacobsen’s death. Juniper (who became the Garden Master) removed many of the concrete slabs from the SCR garden in 1972 and Michael Gearin-Tosh removed some from the JCR garden in 1974-5. Others have gone piecemeal from the grounds either side of the library and lecture hall. The entrance planting was devised by Jacobsen in November 1968 when the gateway was remodelled, and adapted again by Juniper when the Alan Bullock and Mary Sunley buildings were built in 1982-3 by Jack Lankester in homage to Jacobsen’s style, with the advice of Knud Holscher. Subsequently the college has expanded to the north of the service road (outside the registered area), with buildings by Stephen Hodder from 1994-5, 2002-5 (including a new lodge) and Purcell, 2018-19, in part extending Hodder's eastern range of 2002-5). These developments incorporate a long lawn and beech hedges that reflect the character of the earlier gardens.
Mid-1960s college buildings with contemporary gardens and quadrangle, the whole by Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971).
LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING
St Catherine’s College lies to the east of Oxford city centre, at the end of Manor Road, in the south-west corner of an island bounded by arms of the River Cherwell and Holywell Mill Stream. The 7.9 acre / 3.12 ha site is bounded to the west by the canalised mill stream, to the south by Magdalen College, to the east and north by Merton College playing fields and meadowland. The northern boundary of the registered area is the road that leads to these, making the registered area 6 acres / 2.43 ha.
The soil is poor and heavily alkaline. Most of the site was raised 5 feet (1.52m) above flood level by tipping and the main buildings stand on a plinth at the level of the roadways to the north. Following compaction by the building works, in 1964-6 more topsoil was brought from Merton College when its sports pavilion was built nearby and from the university’s new buildings in Summertown.
ENTRANCES, APPROACHES AND VIEWS
The only entrance is over Napper’s Bridge of 1960-1 by Povl Ahm of Ove Arup & Partners at the north-west of the site, which extends Manor Road across the northern boundary of the registered site.
A drive for service vehicles separates the common rooms and kitchens from the Mary Sunley Building. A second drive curves round the Alan Bullock Building and the circular bike shed (1964) to serve the master’s house and the original lodge in the centre of the western residential range. Beech hedges in short, staggered lengths shield the mill stream, with the wall to the master’s garden to the east. It terminates in a circle planted with an acer, where the view opens out and a footbridge leads across the water garden to the old lodge, now seminar room.
The land is flat, falling away slightly towards the mill stream. The steep slope round the Music House is the only part still subject to flooding, and the planting here reflects this. On this west side there are views across the stream to residential buildings opposite, with long views only to the east where the vista opens out across the flat playing fields towards Headington Hill.
Her Majesty The Queen laid the foundation stone of the dining hall in November 1960, and Jacobsen’s main buildings – Meadow Building and River Building containing residential accommodation and fellows’ rooms; a dining hall with a kitchen to the north flanked by the SCR and JCR to west and east respectively; the library, tower and the garden walls ( all one item: NHLE 1229934); Music House (NHLE 1047052); master’s lodge with its garden walls (NHLE 1278800) and bike shed (NHLE 1229973) – were completed in 1964, the Bernard Sunley Block housing the lecture theatre and seminar rooms, bell tower and squash courts (now, 2019, gymnasium, NHLE 1369495) in 1966. All are listed at Grade I.
On the lawn near the old porter’s lodge is ‘Achaean’, by Barbara Hepworth, bought by the college in 1966 after an initial loan. ‘Unbroken Tai Chi’ by the Taiwanese artist Ju Ming (1938- ) sited next to the Mary Sunley Building was given by Prof Michael Sullivan to the college in 2005.
Work on the gardens began in the most open south part of the site in 1964, by Messrs Waterer and Sons and Crisp in succession to Tuckers, under the supervision of Harry Bevan, head gardener 1964-c1979. The original planting was completed in March 1968.
The water garden runs north/south along the whole length of the west side of the original college, a long lawn and straight canal 190m long, with a raised terrace to the SCR and the River Building, the latter with integrated seating at regular intervals set at an angle and alternating with planting boxes, all 1960-4. The water garden was described as ‘completed’ in September 1966. A London plane tree guards the driveway by the bike shed. The dominant tree by the master’s lodgings to the west is Salix babylonica ‘Tortuosa’ (corkscrew willow) with behind it in the master’s garden is a Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree) requested by Mrs Bullock from Jacobsen. The southern end of the master’s garden is screened by a yew hedge planted in August 1965.
The entrance in the River Building leads through to the main quadrangle with its circular lawn, planted with a Cedrus libani (Cedar of Lebanon) planted in about 1992 as specified by Jacobsen after earlier trees (including two mature specimens) had failed or were the wrong cedar in the wrong place. In the corners trees were planted by Juniper in 1972: a mulberry to the north-west, Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Fastigiatum’ (tulip tree) to the north-east, and to the south east Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura tree). The south wall of the dining hall is covered with Virginia creeper. The two long stretches between the lines of buildings are interrupted by short walls alternating with yew hedges of similar height, a key part of Jacobsen’s scheme, set in pairs supporting a glazed roof. The walks are paved in metre long slabs that form a grid, with some missing to take planting, with more yew hedges forming garden rooms between the residential ranges, library and Bernard Sunley Building. At the south end of the Meadow Building is a large Magnolia grandiflora planted in 1985. The south end of the Bernard Sunley and River buildings are planted with vines (as was the dining hall by Jacobsen in 1967). A ramp leads down from the plinth on which the main building stands to the squash courts / gymnasium, with trees screening the southern boundary that include the first plantings of 1964, including incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens)to the east of the gym, and to the west Tilia tomentosa ‘Petiolaris’ (weeping silver lime), Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) and Taxodium distichum (swamp cypress). An amphitheatre framed by yew hedges that was shown in Jacobsen’s plan of 1962 was laid out in 1966. A ramp created in 2018 reusing old coping stones from elsewhere on the site leads to the music house, with two Gingko biloba (maidenhair tree) and Quercus ilex (holm oak), Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula (Nookta cypress). A lower lawn is separated by a wall in Jacobsen’s brick, with swamp cypress trees by the river. Behind the music house the land floods in winter and is treated as a bog garden.
A walled garden between the library and Bernard Sunley Building is entered through a door on its west side and serves the middle common room (MCR). It has two large trees, Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ and Eucryphia x nymansensis (Nyman's eucryphia).
To the north-west the SCR garden was remodelled by Barrie Juniper in 1972, when the walls (incorporating seats) and yews were retained but many of the slabs were replaced with grass. The college entrance gate has been reset here.
The JCR garden was partially modified to introduce more planting by Michael Gearin-Tosh in 1974-5 and again in 2004-5, when the major access route through the college was modified – since the opening of the new lodge most people enter the complex from the north, coming down the corridor between the kitchen and JCR. By the dining hall is a herbaceous border planted with a Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree). On the east side is the red Acer capillipes (snake-bark maple), Acer griseum (paperbark maple), Prunus maackii (Manchurian cherry) and Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree).
Smaller concealed courtyard gardens have been created since Jacobsen’s time: the Alan Bullock Building (1982-3) incorporates in its three courts devised by Barrie Juniper Eucryphia x nymansensis, Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’, a Robinia pseudoacacia and Acer palmatum (planted in 1978 so the building was fitted round them), and the western courtyard features Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood), tall trees that frame the landscape to the north.
In 1982 the internal courtyard of the SCR was laid out at the expense of Arthur Gaskin in memory of his wife Helen, repeating the pattern of the paving in stone paviours on a raised surround, incorporating steps and a raised pool, and brick setts to the lower central part.