Modern architecture at Brasenose

Hidden away, between New Quad and Lincoln College, is what many consider to be an unremarkable concrete building. Commonly referred to these days as the ‘car park’, staircases 16, 17 and 18 were in fact designed by two of Britain’s most significant post-war architects, Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya.

Modern architecture such as this is often much misunderstood, and modern buildings of the 20th century seem to appear particularly alien within a city such as Oxford, where medieval Colleges and magnificent examples of neoclassical and gothic architecture reign supreme. Whilst architectural designs from the arts & crafts and art deco movements are much loved, and even reflected in many of today’s fashion and interior crazes, many post-war buildings are often met with severe criticism. It is therefore hoped that this blog post will generate a greater understanding of Brasenose’s Powell and Moya building.

The history of this building begins in a post-war Brasenose, where rationing and conscription continued to affect College resources. Words such as ‘gloomy’ and ‘grim’ are often used to describe the post-war era, but it cannot be denied that this period also saw the emergence of some inspiring new ideas in the world of British architecture. One such event that celebrated these new ideas, not only in architecture but also in the sciences, technology, arts and design was the Festival of Britain. Held in 1951 the exhibition was an attempt to propel the country away from the experiences of the Second World War. The remnants of the main festival site on London’s South Bank can still be viewed today, in the form of the riverside walk and the Royal Festival Hall. Architectural inspiration was taken from the international style of architecture championed by the likes of Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Amongst these buildings stood the Skylon, a huge steel structure designed by none other than Powell and Moya. It stood at approximately 300 ft. high and gave the illusion that it was floating in mid-air. The Powell and Moya firm had been founded in 1946, and as well as the Skylon they were famous for their pioneering design of the Churchill Gardens housing estate in Pimlico – which had proved a successful effort to provide a housing solution to an area of London damaged during the blitz. As well as housing schemes they designed hospitals and university buildings and it was to be Powell and Moya who successfully brought modernism to both Oxford and Cambridge, beginning with Brasenose.

Site 1959

The building site after the demolition of the Bath-house

College resources might have been affected but following the war undergraduate numbers continued to increase, and to put pressure upon the College to provide more accommodation. A site was eventually found for a new building, when in 1959 every staircase, except one, had become equipped with toilets and bathrooms or showers. This made it possible to demolish the old College bath-house, built in 1911 when its popularity as a modern convenience was reported in the Brazen Nose. It had by all means replaced the 19th century student experience; one student in the 1840s described his room as ‘rather strongly scented with the salutiferous exhalations of a certain capacious necessary in its immediate vicinity’. Indeed the area was described as ‘the most squalid part of the College’, and also housed a dust-bin shelter and bicycle racks. The new accommodation building was envisaged as one of the most ambitious pieces of work projected by the College, not only because of its compact site, but also because of the architects chosen. The last major building completed in the College had been New Quad, designed by the Victorian architect Sir Thomas Graham Jackson and built between 1887 and 1911.

The feelings put forward in John Betjemen’s famous poem Slough, alongside such ideas conveyed in Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture make it clear that radical changes had started to occur with regards to a new urban aesthetic before the Second World War. Brasenose had, since the construction of Old Quad, been concerned about the appearance of its buildings. Whilst 18th century plans to rebuild the College to neoclassical designs never came to fruition, it is interesting that when building New Quad, the Bursar had elicited the opinion of the designer William Morris, who said:

‘considering the historical value of what is left of old Oxford…those who have any share in the guardianship of its history & antiquity, should build a little as possible, should consider it a misfortune when they are forced to build; and also that when forced to build, they should make their building as modest and unpretentious as possible, chiefly taking care that the materials used should be harmonious with the old buildings.’

What Morris would have made of Powell and Moya’s branch of humane modernism, we can only surmise, but its clear that the College chose these architects because they were a practice who built ethically for the people in a modern way. The new building was financed initially by College funds but mostly by benefactions from Brasenose men and was completed in late 1960, when the Brazen Nose reported:

‘By general consent Powell and Moya have made a great success of a most difficult assignment: the architectural equivalent of a century in bad light on a turning wicket. On a site which had little to commend it they have produced a building with dignity and charm which is admirably adapted to the purpose it is to serve and contrives to make the most of a few surprisingly delightful views. As an expert said on the Third Programme, “Anyone who is interested in real modern architecture should go and see it”….In human terms the new building, which contains thirty-two bed-sitting-rooms, will enable every member of the College to spend two years in Brasenose. So we have achieved a goal that has sometimes seemed too much to hope for in the last few years.’

Newly built

The newly built Powell and Moya building

This building conicided with a period at Brasenose that saw a rise in interest towards the arts, most especially modern art. The JCR Picture or Arts Committee was formed, to purchase art and put on exhibitions within College. This had included a small exhibition of pictures by the Borough Group in 1949. Then in 1963, on completion of the new building, a sculpture by Henry Moore was placed outside. This piece, executed in 1960, was a substantial work in bronze, 45 inches long, entitled Reclining Figure on Pedestal. It was selected and loaned for the site by Henry Moore himself. By 1977 the College had welcomed its first Fellow in Creative Arts. This was Howard Hodgkin, who had a studio in Shoe Lane. During his year in College his paintings were exhibited in the HCR and at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art. Another, often overlooked, work of art remains part of the Powell and Moya building. This is the mosaic mural on the wall by Hans Unger and Eberhard Schuize which was based on the polyhedron, a mediaeval symbol of research and learning.

Room from BN.jpg

One of the thirty-two bed-sitting rooms in 1963

The Powell and Moya building was awarded a Bronze Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects, alongside a First Class Award by the Oxford Civic Trust. The reputation of the building also inspired other Colleges to employ Powell and Moya to complete their extensions. This included Christ Church College (Blue Boar Quad) and most prominently Wolfson College, which was designed in its entirety by Powell and Moya in conjunction with Sir Isaiah Berlin and ‘laid out on the egalitarian principles which governed the college’. It might come as a surprise to many that the Powell and Moya building at Brasenose was Grade II listed in 1998, and though it has faced its difficulties, it should be appreciated as a fine example of 1960s British architecture. Each century the College has had to find new and ingenious ways to build, and the Powell and Moya remains as its 20th century example.

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