Wolfson College


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Wolfson College, Linton Road, OXFORD, OX


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Statutory Address:
Wolfson College, Linton Road, OXFORD, OX

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Oxford (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Post-graduate college, built as a single project 1968-74 by Powell and Moya, in close collaboration with Sir Isaiah Berlin, President of the College, with job architects Geoffrey Frankham and Arthur Gomez, and Charles Weiss and Partners, engineers.

Reasons for Designation

Wolfson College, Oxford, a purpose-built post-graduate college, built 1968-74 by Sir Phillip Powell and Hidalgo Moya is designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: a single-phase, post-graduate college in Oxford designed by a foremost post-war practice, in collaboration with Sir Isaiah Berlin President of the College, and laid out on the egalitarian principles which governed the college; * Plan: a fluid, informal composition of open and enclosed spaces connected by covered walkways, overlooking the River Cherwell; while echoing the bay at Portofino, Italy, the college has a powerful affinity with its setting, a strength for which the practice was acclaimed; * Materials: to complement the relative informality and fluidity within the plan, carefully measured materials and finishes in muted colours provide an even finish to the elevations which are set out on a rigid grid, within a common aesthetic of white and grey concrete; * Historical interest: one of two Oxford University Colleges founded in 1965 in response to the rise in graduate student numbers; set up on egalitarian principles, it provided for families, single students and staff; the influence of Sir Isaiah Berlin on the ethos and design of the College is apparent in the building.


Wolfson College was one of two colleges founded by Oxford University in 1965 in response to a 40% increase in graduate student numbers over five years. Generous benefactions secured by the first President, Professor, later Sir Isaiah Berlin, from the Wolfson Foundation and Ford Foundation in 1966 enabled the construction of a new college to accommodate members of the academic staff who had no college fellowship and graduate students, the majority of its membership coming from the sciences; the college admitted its first students in October 1968 and was formally opened by Harold Macmillan, Chancellor of the University on 12 November 1974. The college invited architects Powell and Moya, who were already known in Oxford for their work at Brasenose (1956-61) Corpus Christi (1964-8) and Christ Church (1964-68), while they were also working on the Cripps Building, St John's College, Cambridge (1962-7). The Fellows had admired the Cripps Building while on a tour of universities in Britain, Finland and the Netherlands. The college has been extended since 1992 in a series of detached blocks to the north of the original college; these buildings are not included in the listing.

New projects led by teams such as Powell and Moya, Howell Killick Partridge and Amis, and the Architects Co-Partnership saw an exciting interaction of the new and the old in both Oxford and Cambridge in the post-war period. St Catherine's College, Oxford (1960-66) was designed in its entirety by Arne Jacobsen, from buildings set in their landscape to the fine detail of the cutlery.

Philip Powell (1921-2003) and Hidalgo Moya (1920 -1994) newly qualified from the Architectural Association, first came to prominence in 1946, winning the competition for the large-scale housing scheme at Churchill Gardens, Pimlico. Skylon, at the Festival of Britain, followed in 1951. Powell and Moya were closely involved in hospital design throughout their careers, early on winning projects in Swindon, Slough and Manchester. Aside from Wolfson College, their university work included the new residential block at Brasenose College, squeezed in between existing historic buildings, Blue Boar Quad for Christ Church and Christ Church Picture Gallery, and perhaps most famously, the Cripps Building for St John's College, Cambridge (each of these buildings is listed Grade II*). They chose to remain a small practice, of around fifty strong. Philip Powell commented that their busy work load restricted the amount of new work they could decently take on, which may help to explain why they were not commissioned to design one of the new universities. They worked largely for the public sector, and as well as university schemes, hospitals and housing, projects included Mayfield School, Putney (1952-6), Chichester Festival Theatre (1958-62, listed Grade II*),The Museum of London (1962-76), the British pavilion for the 1970 Osaka Expo, and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster (1975-86).

According to Ken Powell their 'skill at designing for a specific context - identifying "the character-behind-the-style of their surroundings" as [Reyner] Banham put it - remains the most memorable aspect of their work' (2009, xii). The practice thrived on successful teamwork, combining Philip Powell's business acumen with their intuitive brilliance as designers. The practice won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1974, while Wolfson College won the Concrete Society Award for 1975. Moya was appointed CBE in 1966; among many accolades, Powell was appointed to the Royal Fine Arts Commission, made Royal Academician, and was knighted in 1975.

The grounds at Wolfson College were landscaped by Powell and Moya, whereas in previous schemes they had used a landscape architect who had retired by this date. Wherever possible mature trees were retained, for example at the entrance and within Tree Court, while paths lead to viewpoint from the bridge over the River Cherwell. Outside the entrance was a separate low, drum-shaped, reinforced concrete, enclosed bike shed (recently demolished in accordance with the planning consent).


STRUCTURE AND MATERIALS: Blocks are of reinforced concrete on piled foundations, with brick cross-walls to the residential accommodation, and in-situ columns where the ground floor is open; the administrative block is supported on circular pre-cast columns. The dining hall has a pyramidal roof with pre-cast facing panels fixed to a secondary framework of in-situ concrete beams and columns. Flat roofs are asphalt, sloping are roofs clad in lead.

Pre-cast columns are finished in bush-hammered white calcinated flint aggregate. In-situ floors, cast against pre-cast fascia edge shutter units of grey granite aggregate, provide an even finish to the elevations, a concept also carried through in the ends of the cross walls which are clad with grey pre-cast granite-faced units which support white concrete handrails of the balcony balustrades. All provide an even finish to the elevations which vary within a common aesthetic of white and grey concrete on a rigid grid. The back walls of the covered ways and walls to the penthouses are of white-painted blockwork. The family maisonettes are of painted block-work. The podium on which the two-storey family houses sit has brick paviors and a robust balustrade which surrounds the lightwell over the nursery.

Recessed surfaces such as windows and balcony reveals are painted white. Glazing to the residential blocks is set back in anodised black aluminium window frames, behind tinted glass balconies, tilted to reflect the sky. Access balconies and walkways to the flatlets have ventilated glazed screens, some set diagonally. Marble lined principal staircase; chestnut linings and fittings to hall, seminar room and library, chestnut finishes to residential areas.

PLAN: Wolfson College sits on gently sloping land between the banks of the Cherwell, and the late-C19 and early-C20 detached houses of North Oxford. The college was built as a single project and the main buildings, which were opened in 1974, accommodated approximately 180 residents, and provided communal facilities for 850 or so members of the College and Common Room. In accordance with its egalitarian principles, reflected in the title of President, Wolfson has no high table and a single suite of common rooms. The college is arranged in blocks laid out round two quadrangles or courts, with spurs extending down the slope towards the Cherwell, where the college overlooks a lake, modelled on the bay at Portofino, with a punt harbour and island. The main court, laid out on three storeys and approached via the two storey entrance front, from Linton Road, houses the library, the dining hall and common room, seminar rooms and administrative offices. Tree Court is enclosed by two- to four-storey ranges housing the former buttery, and accommodation for married graduates. The northern side of the court, which was designed for families with children, comprises maisonettes opening onto enclosed terraces set on a podium over the nursery and car parking. Two ranges of shared residential flats for single students, lead towards the river, the westernmost range curved in accordance with Sir Isaiah Berlin's wishes. Penthouses are set over these spur ranges, where the land falls away to the river. The buildings are linked by brick-paved covered ways at ground floor and upper levels, and under colonnades which form the ground floor of the main court. Paths lead to a single span bridge over the River Cherwell, which was designed as part of the scheme and gives views back to the college over lawns backed by planting. The bridge provides the final point or full stop to the fluid progression through the building.

Isaiah Berlin, first President of the College, was keenly involved in the overall design of the college and its setting, which closely follows the profile of the village overlooking the bay at Portofino. He advocated that the curved wall of the riverside quad was more appropriate to the soft forms of the river than the cranked plan that the architects had designed, in conjunction with the landscape, and a change that they later regretted. According to Philip Powell the style was generated by the plan. To complement the relative informality and fluidity within the plan, carefully measured materials and finishes in muted colours provide an even finish to the elevations which are set out on a rigid grid, within a common aesthetic of white and grey concrete, and punctuated, originally, by colourful curtains, while tilted glazed balconies reflect the trees and sky.

INTERIOR: Marble-clad stairwell and stairs, a generous bequest from Lord Wolfson, rise from the south-east corner of the main court, giving access to the dining hall, seminar room and common room, and the upper level of the common room and internal corridor serving the seminar rooms. The dining hall is square on plan with a pyramidal roof and is lit by narrow clerestorey windows. It is linked to the adjacent seminar room by sliding doors. The walls and doors of both are lined in chestnut boarding which continues into the open, pyramidal, dining hall roof. The double-height library, a long narrow top-lit space lined with moveable shelves and individual study carells, again lined in chestnut, is laid out on two levels with a gallery on one side. The single common room is also on two levels linked by an internal stair with a steel balustrade.

The former buttery, which occupies the western side of Tree Court is a small irregular shaped space with exposed columns and ceiling beams and is served by a very small kitchen area. Glazed screen and doors overlook the court.

Offices are set on the northern and eastern sides of the main court, some with views overlooking the river. Much of the accommodation has been modernised, in part to comply with health and safety standards and provision of disabled access, but a proportion of the flatlets retain their original flush-panelled entrance doors and internal partitions and fittings. Chestnut is used for doorframes, skirtings, cornices and finishes throughout the building, while the principal interiors also have chestnut lined doors.

The college has been extended since 1992 in a series of detached blocks to the north of the original college. These buildings are not of special interest and are not included in the listing.

Subsidiary items Paths lead to a single-span arched bridge over the River Cherwell, constructed of precast concrete panels and a slender steel balustrade. It was designed as part of the scheme and gives views back to the college over lawns backed by planting. The bridge provides the final point or full stop to the fluid progression through the building.


Books and journals
Jessup, F , Wolfson College, Oxford, The Early Years, (1979)
Pevsner, N, Sherwood, J, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire, (1974), 252-3
Powell, K, Powell and Moya, (2009)
'Architects' Journal' in Architects Journal, (23 October 1968), 910-11
'Architects' Journal' in Architects' Journal , (4 June 1975)
'Architectural Review' in , (October 1974), 206-20
Gardiner, S, 'RIBA Journal' in RIBA Journal, (March 1974), 8-11
Wolfson College, Oxford, College Prospectus, nd, post 1985,
Wolfson College, Oxford, College Prospectus, nd, post 1992,


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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