Visit to St Catherine’s College

The group of Ertegun scholars who ventured to tour St Catherine’s College this Trinity term could not have been offered a better tour guide than our very own Director. Gervase’s considering his knowledge of architectural history and his own experience as a longtime integral member of the College’s faculty. We were lucky enough to be provided not only with his guidance, but also enjoyed a sunny day and the accompaniment of the domestic bursar, who offered first-hand experience on the day-to-day workings of Oxford’s most strikingly modern undergraduate college. I had a particular anticipation of this tour; as an art and architectural historian I had been aware of the significance of the St. Catherine’s (affectionately known as ‘Catz’) buildings ever since my first foray into learning about modernist architecture. It is an iconic structure known as a landmark in the history of modernism; although its iconic status and Grade I listing cements its place in history; Gervase’s stories and experience emphasized the buildings not simply as landmarks but instead as sites of vitality and creativity.


Catz is also a place which has deep roots in social equality. Thus, the notion of architecture’s role in social movements finds expression in its buildings. Regardless of what one’s personal taste for the modern buildings may be, it is hard to argue that Catz’ atmosphere is not designed specifically to be open and unconventional, and thus acts as a potential counter to Oxford’s other more closed, walled and elite colleges. St. Catherine’s Society was the first iteration of what was to become today’s Catz. Formed in the nineteenth century, the Society was a response to a royal commission in 1852 which sought to enable (at the time, only male) less well-off students to experience Oxford education without the prohibitive costs of college membership. These ‘non-collegiate’ students were still undoubtedly part of Oxford, and eventually congregated in the building which now houses the University’s music faculty. But by 1956, the notion that less financially privileged students deserved a more thorough integration into the Oxford experience – a college of their own – finally became accepted. Censor Alan Bullock fought for their right to build such a college. Bullock’s role as collegiate developer – and the college’s ardent architectural patron – accompanied his renown as a historian. A patch of verdant meadow was purchased from Merton College. Then Bullock set himself to a challenge of finding the best architect for the College’s vision. It was crucial that this architecture reflect the spirit and purpose of St Catherine’s society, which was crucially to offer educational equity.Naturally, such equity was at the time limited to men. Yet Catz was one of the very first men’s colleges to accept women in 1974, only about a decade after its opening. Other colleges had centuries-long histories before they deigned to allow women to enter their grounds as students.

Catz’ grounds were a matter of great concern for Bullock. I found Gervase’s account of the relationship between a historian and his quest for architectural fulfillment remarkable: as a historian myself, I feel that the episode illuminates an integration of the humanities and traditional academia with a uniquely modern concern for visual and haptic experience – in other words, it’s a marriage of the arts and the humanities which is not foreign to Ertegun students.

Bullock’s conscientious involvement in the selection and patronage of the architect was extraordinary, since normally, academics would not have been informed enough in architectural matters. It was thus especially interesting to hear today’s Domestic Bursar’s perspective on the buildings a nod to the necessary integration of academic historical knowledge and practical building. Bullock’s desire for an architect that he could collaborate with, and who could honor the specific purpose of St Catherine’s, meant that the search for the perfect firm was long. A thorough scouring of both Britain and America produced no viable options. Finally, he turned to Scandinavia. At the time, Oxford was broadly resistant to modernist architecture. As an institution which is largely steeped quite heavily in tradition, buildings without the typical ‘dreaming spires’ are still today sometimes regarded with suspicion. Yet the characteristic warmth and social considerations of Scandinavian modernism was, in my opinion, the perfect answer for a vision of social equality in building architecture. Scandinavian modernism is has a characteristic warmth in comparision with other continental styles; perhaps because of its emphasis on craftsmanship and traditional craft excellence. Catz does not possess an impersonal or cold modernism, even with its rigid angles, it exudes a kind of rhythmic peacefulness. Thus Bullock had selected the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen.

Bullock also wanted an architect who he could work in close collaboration with, and Jacobsen was the ideal choice because his firm was not large and did not tend to take on multiple projects at once. Jacobsen’s collaboration with Bullock was thorough and fruitful, and his eventual design was incredibly comprehensive. He not only designed the buildings, but also every other detail from the gardens to the furniture down to even the cutlery. Such holistic approach to design ideally might mirror a holistic approach to education for all. The Gesantkunstverk of Catz is evident in every material thing; from its chairs to its bike shed. His vision is still in very much alive today – although Covid prevented us from seeing the interior of the College, as the railings he originally designed in student bedrooms are visibly festooned with towels, blankets and clothes; and students wander lesuirely across all of the lawns, a sight which would be impossible in many other colleges whose lawns are off-limits. Jacobsen was so thorough in his design vision that he bordered on neurotic – he even selected the specific kind of fish breed that he wanted to populate his long, rectangular ponds. In its layout, Catz draws some inspiration from other Oxford colleges in that it has a central quad surrounded by student accommodation, a library, and a dining hall; yet it sets itself apart by not having imposing gates or walls which keep out visitors, nor does it have a chapel; both of these adjustments are a nod to its origins as a ‘non-collegiate’ society which freed its members from financial burden, specific religious affiliation, and exclusive and/or elite quarters. Although it is close to the city centre, it feels beautifully remote, given that it is situated within a meadow and is not bordered directly by any other buildings. Jacobsen’s designs are given a space to shine on their own.


As a tour guide, Gervase not only illuminated a history of modernism via a college design – he also had some amusing asides and exclusive stories, one of which was about a certain tree planted in the central quad at the behest of Jacobsen. Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to his retelling in prose, it was necessary to hear in person – and at the site of the tree itself! Such trees, plants and flowers of Catz were on full display on the warm spring day we visited, which was occasion to interrogate Jacobsen’s desire for a complete design, down to each seed. His thorough plans for the gardens demonstrates his desire for meticulousness, yet the unpredictability of English plants, particularly the continually creeping nature of ivy, grated his modernist desire for order. But the combination of good, modular, meticulously planned design and unpredictable growth seems to characterise the college, and one hopes, the future of humanities education. Ertegun House, for example, is designed to and functions to facilitate scholarship. What that scholarship will do in the future cannot be completely predicted. The architecture of the programme does everything it can to furnish an optimal environment for new ideas - but scholars are given the space to use their resources to develop their own unique pathways, ones perhaps not trodden before.


Towards the end of the tour, Gervase took us toward some meticulously trimmed hedges, which surpirisingly housed small enclaves for sculptural busts. He mentioned that these were produced by an artist-in-reisdence of the College whom he had hosted. One of the Ertegun Scholars finally realized that one such bust depicted him!


It has been especially fortuitous to have an art and architectural historian as the head of the House who can lead us around Oxford as our own tour guide, and especially to hear his insider perspective on such a monument of modernist twentieth-century design as St. Catherine’s College.


In spite of differing aesthetic perspectives – Jacobsen’s modernist tack is not universally beloved – it is undeniable that his vision was a markedly humane approach to modernist architecture, one which valued the harmony of plants and the balance of lampshades alongside floor plans and building materials. This vision seems to me to be well-suited to the original purpose of St. Catherine’s Society. From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, to its modernist iteration in the twentieth century; it is up to today’s scholars to determine what a twenty-first century approach to scholarly inclusiveness might look like in buildings and beyond.


Kathleen Quaintance