Tour of St Catz

The first Ertegun tour of 2015 took the scholars to St Catherine’s College on Manor Road. St Catz is famous for its then daring decision to appoint a Danish modernist architect, Arne Jacobsen, to help realise a new college at the beginning of the 1960s. Born of a desire to find a home for students from lower-income families, St Catherine’s is home today to nearly 800 students from all backgrounds. Our guide, award winning author (and Fellow of St Catherine’s) Professor Gervase Rosser kindly introduced us to the story of Jacobsen and the remarkable design of the buildings, which draws a steady stream of students of architecture from all over the world.

Arriving on Manor Road, I was not struck by the beauty of the buildings. The beige bricks reminded me of my grandparents’ semi-detached house in a suburban estate in Wiltshire. The protruding concrete ‘skeleton’ of the buildings seemed all too familiar from countless no-frills council buildings across the UK. But upon entering the grounds of the college, my perspective changed. From the Master’s garden, my eyes were drawn to the long East side of the quadrangle where the meticulous mathematical regularity of concrete and windows are lifted above the ground by the narrower ground floor. The lawn is divided by intermittent low walls and hedges, just for fun.

Turning into the entrance to the quad from that East side, the attraction of the symmetry begins to become clear. For a moment it felt like I was entering an airport, but then emerging the other side into the spacious quad, the wide and low buildings create a sense of serenity. Jacobsen was very intentional about creating a space for students which fosters community rather than isolation, and was sensitive to the landscape. However, he was also strict about the application of his plans, down to the very last detail. All the chairs, tables, door fittings, light switches and sockets, even the cutlery were original Jacobsen designs. Older members of the SCR still recount tales of the robust and frank relationship between the founding Master, Alan Bullock, and Jacobsen, as the planning and building work progressed.

St Catz was envisioned to be a decidedly modern College. For Bullock and his colleagues this meant not accepting students for Classics or Theology, and going without a chapel (though Jacobsen, having designed a chapel, insisted on a bell tower). However, unlike some other younger colleges, there is still a high table, with improbably elongated chairs!

The most beautiful and impressive part of the College was for me the inside of the library. Here, on closer inspection, the highly polished dark grey East Anglian concrete structure contrasts beautifully with the autumn colour of the wooden shelves, the metalwork of the slender spiral staircases, and the light entering through the glass. It’s no wonder architecture students are often seen viewing this unique college.

Sam Shearn