The Stunning Architecture of Oxford: 5 of the Oldest Buildings and 5 of the Newest
Oxford’s most notable buildings span nearly a thousand years of history.
Every architectural period from the Anglo-Saxons onwards is represented somewhere in Oxford. But the city and the university have no desire to dwell in the past. Oxford is now nearly as much a thriving hub for innovative and striking modern architecture as it is a destination where you can see the glorious buildings of the past, beautifully preserved. If you join us in our Oxford Summer Architecture Programme, you’ll have the chance to learn all about architecture throughout history to the present day. In this article, we take a look at some of Oxford’s oldest buildings – and some of its newest.
Oxford’s ancient architecture
1. St George’s Tower in Oxford Castle (1020)
One of the two surviving Saxon towers in the city of Oxford, St George’s Tower was built around 1020 AD, nearly a thousand years ago – though the exact date of construction isn’t known. Despite its setting amongst the shops and restaurants of Oxford’s Castle Quarter, it still looks undeniably imposing; you couldn’t miss its defensive purpose. It was probably originally built as a watchtower associated with the western gate of the city. Subsequently, it became part of the original motte-and-bailey Oxford Castle. After that was pulled down, around 1300, the tower was incorporated into the curtain wall of the new castle, built in stone.
It makes sense that St George’s Tower was retained – it reaches a height of nearly 25 metres, giving an ideal view of any approaching dangers, and at its base its walls are an impenetrable 2.7m thick. At the time of its building it may have been even taller. Streams and moats on both sides make it even more inaccessible. If you visit Oxford, climb the tower and admire the view, take a moment to imagine how awe-inspiring it might be to see a tower like this rising over low wooden buildings as a clear statement of military power.
2. The Saxon Tower of St Michael at the North Gate (1040)
Oxford’s other Saxon tower is the tower of the church of St Michael at the North Gate. From the fact that this church was once by the North Gate in the city walls, and St George’s Tower by the West Gate, it’s possible to see just how small the city boundaries once were. Like St George’s Tower, the Saxon Tower is built from rubble and gives the impression of being built for security and endurance.
Between this and St George’s Tower, it’s easy to get the wrong impression of what Anglo-Saxon Oxford might have looked like – it certainly wasn’t all made up of rugged towers built of stone. What was there has mostly not survived for several reasons. The first is that most of it would have been made of wood, rather than more durable stone. The second is that these Anglo-Saxon towers were clearly built with practicality in mind, not beauty. For the many centuries that these two towers managed to endure, they would have been seen as old and ugly, not historic and significant.
3. Christ Church Cathedral (1160–1200)
Many college chapels are impressive, but the Oxford college of Christ Church has perhaps the most stunning of them all, and it comes with a storied past as well. It goes all the way back to St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, an Anglo-Saxon princess who, the story goes, forswore marriage in order to found a convent despite the wishes of the king who sought to marry her. The townspeople of Oxford protected her, and she founded a convent on what is now the site of Christ Church.
In 1122, the Priory of St Frideswide was established on the site; what is now Christ Church Cathedral was in the late 12th century as their place of worship. In 1522, the priory was taken over by Thomas Wolsey, who planned to knock down the church and replace it with a new chapel as part of his new Cardinal College. But with Wolsey’s fall from grace, the college was taken over by Henry VIII, who named it Christ Church, and the church was retained as the cathedral of the diocese of Oxford, as well as the chapel of the new college. Though one of England’s smallest cathedrals, it’s still a stunning example of late Norman architecture.
4. Mob Quad, Merton College (1274)
A strong contender for the oldest Oxford college (the other two disputing that title are Balliol and University College), Merton College was established in the 1260s. Building of the hall, the chapel, the library and Mob Quad, which provides accommodation for students, began in the 1270s – making Mob Quad probably the oldest quadrangle in Oxford. It’s so old, it doesn’t even have chimneys; these were not in widespread use in English buildings until the 16th century.
If you want to know what it felt like to be a student in medieval Oxford, then visiting Merton College is about as close as you can get in the present day. You can tell how closely college architecture was based on that of religious foundations, and see the crenellated battlements of the porter’s lodge, which date back to the reign of Henry V – a reminder that life in Oxford was not always as safe and peaceful as it is in the present day. While Oxford has been relatively untouched by war, altercations between students and townspeople, and indeed between students of different colleges, weren’t unusual in medieval times, so it makes sense that colleges were prepared just in case of violence.
5. 24-26 Cornmarket Street (1386-1396)
For a picture of the town side of medieval Oxford – rather than the gown – you can’t do much better than 24-26 Cornmarket Street. This timber-framed building was built in the late 14th century for a wine merchant who ran it as the New Inn. It was one of many inns clustered into this area of central Oxford, and what remains is about half of the original inn, which would have been structured around a central courtyard. What you see there today is partly the original building, and partly a very sympathetic restoration funded by Jesus College in the 1980s.
If you were visiting Oxford in the 14th century, this building wouldn’t have struck you as anything out of the ordinary; its architecture is quite typical for British cities at the time. It’s also worth noting the way that the building becomes gradually wider with every storey; this was a way of maximising floor space without needing to buy more land. In some buildings of this kind on narrow streets, the overhang was considerable enough that householders could reach out of a top-floor window and shake hands with their neighbours across the road.
Oxford’s modern architecture
1. Investcorp Building (2015)
The blandly named Investcorp Building – given that name because of the investment company’s donations to fund its construction – is a lot more exciting than its name would suggest. It’s home to St Anthony’s College’s Middle East Centre, and it takes the form of a polished-steel tunnel that shimmers in sunlight, and that is so reflective that at times it is nearly invisible.
There are several different approaches that modern architects have taken to the challenge of designing buildings to sit in ancient colleges: sometimes, it is to mimic the historic buildings completely; sometimes, to build something modern in similar materials; sometimes, to create a building that contrasts with its setting. Hadid has found another option, in this defiantly modern creation that quite literally reflects the traditional architecture around it. The Investcorp Building is particularly interesting in that it had to take on some additional challenges, such as turning in an arc to avoid the trunk and roots of a sequoia tree. The architecture also aimed to echo the building’s purpose, in creating more links between the West and the Middle East, which contributed to attracting Investcorp’s sponsorship.
2. Siew-Sngiem Clock Tower and Sukum Navapan Gate (2015)
A different approach was taken by Harris Manchester College in building their new clock tower and gate, designed by Yiangou Architects, which won an award from Oxford Preservation Trust. But for the lack of wear on the stone, these classical buildings could date from a hundred or two hundred years ago. They’re built in local Headington stone like so much of the university, feature mullioned windows and spiral staircases, and decorative carving of a kind that’s typically eschewed by modern architecture. But that’s not to say that the carving is dull: there’s a bicycle, to celebrate the college’s free bicycle scheme; and an elephant, to celebrate the Thai background of the sisters who funded the project – the Siew-Sngiem Clock Tower is named in honour of their parents.
The most notable feature of the tower, though, is the inscription reading, “It’s later than you think… but it’s never too late”. The slightly disconcerting words come from Dorothy Sayers, who celebrated Oxford in her novel Gaudy Night, and which are fitting for a college dedicated to mature students.
3. Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (2016)
What happens when you add elements of classical Islamic architecture to a traditional Oxford college? The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, designed by Professor Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil, is one possible answer to that question.
It follows the traditional college layout, itself based on medieval Catholic monasteries, with its buildings arranged around a central quadrangle. But from Islamic architecture it adds a 35m minaret and dome for its prayer hall, not to mention marble elaborately carved with Islamic verses. The end result is a building that blends in with Oxford’s traditional architecture, but gives it an undeniably Islamic flavour – representing the union of Eastern and Western traditions that the Centre for Islamic Studies aims to achieve. It’s also a fascinating depiction of how the medieval colleges of the University of Oxford might have looked had they be founded in an Islamic tradition, rather than a Christian one.
4. Blavatnik School of Government (2016)
The Blavatnik School of Government has its home in Jericho, in north Oxford. This striking building is controversially taller than Carfax Tower, which has been taken as the maximum height for buildings in central Oxford. It’s on a road full of similarly striking architecture, opposite the classical Oxford University Press building, and next door to former church and current cocktail bar Freud, built in a Greek Revival style in the 1830s. The building was developed by architects Herzog & de Meuron and its design, in the words of the School itself, “represents the values of openness, collaboration and transparency that are key to the School’s overall mission of improving public policy.”
Like many of the modern buildings on this list, it aims to be both new and reflective of the old – its circular shape echoing Oxford buildings like the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre. And this continues in its vast interior space, the Inamori Forum, which connects its floors together through a huge unwinding staircase, and which was particularly praised by the judges when the building won a RIBA National Award for its architecture.
5. Westgate Centre (2017)
Outside of the university, a major recent building project for Oxford city was the redevelopment of the Westgate Shopping Centre, formerly housed in a somewhat tired-looking 1970s building. Planned to accommodate 15 million visitors every year, the new shopping centre cost £500m to build and took the collaborative efforts of 6 architectural firms.
It’s much larger and brighter than its previous incarnation, due in part to a soaring glass roof that lets shoppers enjoy the light and fresh air of being outside, while being protected from the typical English rain. And its construction uses materials that reflect the soft brown colour of the Headington stone from which so many of Oxford’s buildings are constructed, making it much more sympathetic to its surroundings than the previous building. For all these efforts, it won the retail architecture award Revo Gold Re:new; the judges said, “Westgate connects all facets of the city, creating something modern, whilst respecting the historic surroundings” – succeeding at the challenge that all architects building in Oxford face.
Image credits: Oxford architecture; St George’s Tower; Saxon Tower; Christ Church Cathedral; Mob Quad; Cornmarket St; Investcorp Building; Siew-Sngiem Clock Tower; Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies; Blavatnik Building; Westgate Centre.