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Arne Jacobsen in Oxford

13 Jun

After some planning I managed yesterday to visit St Catherine’s College in Oxford. A rarity in the UK of an accomplished major European architect that was allowed to materialise his grand plan without making too many concessions that would affect the purity of the design.

Jacobsen is a very particular kind of architect, he was precise, but at the same time his projects exude humanity and warmth. One aspect that makes his lighting and chair designs enduring classics. His touch is light but the aesthetic is ascetic and decidedly Nordic.

Walking into his campus is a quiet affair, no distracting details no extraneous detailing, just a simple bridged passage over the full length pond that is in typology a moat. All that surrounds the visitor is glass, yellow brick and the light flooding though from the end of the vista. Have been familiar with St Catherine’s from photographs but to actually move around it is such a wonderful experience. His architecture is solemn (I’d avoid calling it severe) and has gravitas but at every turn the landscaping brings a smile to the walker. Some roses hidden behind one of his low ordered walls that support the functional benches, the clipped yew that makes up imaginary walkways and is itself part covered by a floating glass roof are delightful. The scheme just feels extremely considered and mature. A piece of architecture for the senses and for contemplation. The positioning and spatial organisation of the campus is possibly the most interesting contribution and is indeed the underlying genius of Jacobsen. But the careful detailing, with some wonderful fixtures elevates this project to the extraordinary, a true Modernist triumph.

Walking into the lobby before entering the Dining Hall is a revelation, a low glazed lobby with skylights illuminating some plants against the end wall and an unassuming oak door with a signature brass handle (if you have seen Arne handles you’ll know them and all they wavy, almost liquid elegance). When the door opens the space of the Hall is almost overwhelming. Any other architect would have gone overboard and create a hangar like space. This space is surely large but it still remains curiously human in scale. An interesting junction of monumentality and domesticity. The quirkily green stone floor complements the cruciform pale cast concrete columns, the trees are brought in from the l shaped openings of the side windows, which are high enough to give the Hall an air of privacy and seclusion. If I had to describe the feel it would be very close to Byzantine monastic refectories, a sense of stillness pervades. The room is suitably finished by Tom Phillips’ tapestries, which take their graphic theme from St Catherine of Alexandria and the moto of the College and the University’s. A later addition to the scheme that respects Arne’s limited palette but is bold enough to be impactful.

The way the blue tinted English daylight gets manipulated and softened in the space and the addition of warm tinted table lamps adds to the almost monastic intensity. It was a huge privilege being in the space with just only another three people, being able to soak in the atmosphere. Anyone that doesn’t have affection for high quality Modernism they should be taken there, I would be very surprised if they are not moved by the experience.

So I will surely spent the rest of the week in a state of reverie casting my mind back to Arne’s masterful and winning College. The kind of place to give confidence about the power of great architecture. Jacobsen never went for easy, fussy structures (that has been all the rage since the 80s) his approach is thoughtful, democratic and open. Dear reader if you think his genius ended with his Swan chairs and space age cutlery think again. He was a total designer (like Frank Lloyd Wright) and all aspects of the design are integrated and transparent. Amazing.

A huge thank you to Fiona and Tim  for making the visit possible.

A set of 164 photographs taken on our visit can be seen on Flickr

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