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Twilight of the Quads

Unbuilt Oxford

by Howard Colvin
Yale University Press, 198 pp., $14.95 (paper)

In Heaven, so we are instructed in the New Testament, are many mansions. Though we have no dimensions, no ground plans let alone elevations, for these residences, they must, by definition, be ideally perfect: heavenly. For Xanadu, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan a “stately pleasure dome” did decree. The poem is one of the most magically evocative in the English language, but the architectural image that it evokes is vague, shimmering like a majestic cumulus cloud in the sunset (or like “cloud-capped towers” for that matter). Plans and elevations—the measurable, buildable, definition of what was actually built—are lacking, and if they were to be found, what relationship would they bear to Kubla Khan’s original vision and original decree? How did the pleasure dome stand in relation to Alph, the sacred river? Was Capability Brown called in for the landscaping, or was it subsequently re-jigged by Humphry Repton?

The dust jacket of Howard Colvin’s Unbuilt Oxford reproduces Humphry Repton’s vision (1801) of an ideal Great Quadrangle in Gothic picturesque for Magdalen College. The existing Magdalen Tower, that famous Oxford landmark, still rises beyond the trees, but the new open Quad, pale as a dream, recedes from the banks of the river Cherwell, which Repton has here expanded to a placid lake, where drifts a leisurely punt or two. This is the “After” view, presented by Repton to his clients in the form of one of his usual “Red Books,” in which the main feature of the proposal is hidden from first sight by a movable flap on which “Before” is drawn. In this case the client, on opening the book, would have been confronted by a somewhat tedious view of a meadow and some trees, but if a fingernail is inserted delicately into the flap and lifts—presto, the enchanted vision of the new springs into view.

A great virtue of this form of presentation (from the architect’s point of view) is that it conveys, entirely mendaciously, a vivid conviction to the client, or at least to a client innocent thus far of dealings with architects, that the project proposed is capable of just such simple, straightforward, almost instantaneous realization.

Repton’s Great Quad was of course never built—nor, earlier, for the same college, was Hawksmoor’s, or Edward Holdsworth’s, or James Wyatt’s, or John Buckler’s, or John Nash’s, or Thomas Harrison’s, or… Howard Colvin has a whole chapter called “Indecision at Magdalen”—“this epic of architectural mismanagement.” He concludes somewhat austerely: “Magdalen today consists of a medieval nucleus with two incomplete additions, one of the eighteenth and the other of the nineteenth century. The result is a collection of buildings that, despite the quality of their architecture and the beauty of their setting, still lacks the essential unity of a college.”

Colvin prefaces his book with an acknowledgment that the “might-have-beens of history are not popular with historians,” and agrees that a “hypothetical train of events is emphatically not” a proper subject for historical inquiry. But for architectural historians, the matter is somewhat different. Building projects that did not materialize in stone or brick nevertheless may well exist on paper. Their relevance to the problem that they were designed to resolve can be assessed, as also the reasons why one solution was preferred among several available. They offer material for a study in depth of architectural patronage in action.

Oxford is an especially favorable institution in which to pursue such a study for several reasons. Its archives are unusually rich and relatively well preserved, so that not only the visual evidence of the unbuilt often survives, but so does detailed record of the deliberations that led to their frustration. An Oxford college can, and frequently does, confront its architect with a remarkably complex and dilatory procedure of arriving at a decision, or, for that matter, at a nondecision. The colleges are autonomous and self-governing. A decision to build or not to build, to commit a considerable sum of money, to accept responsibility for a possibly controversial addition to an architectural ensemble that through the centuries has become world famous—such a decision offers endless opportunity for debate in governing bodies of dons in which all views are equal. Colvin quotes a folkloric witticism: Oxford is a “hotbed of cold feet.” Architecturally, he observes, it is “a graveyard of rejected designs.” And so, he sets about resurrection.

Colvin proceeds chronologically. For the very early times, evidence is lacking. Toward the mid-fifteenth century it begins to emerge, first visible in stone. In Oxford’s most splendid examples of late Gothic, the Divinity Schools, there is in a corner a window jamb with an elaborate molding that simply gives up and expires into blank stone like a sandcastle obliterated by the tide into smooth sand. This is vivid witness both to an economic crisis in the university and to a shift in taste. The mason was instructed, in 1440, to abandon “superfluous elaboration”—but by the 1470s, when the roof was under way, the austere midcentury taste had yielded to that irrepressible surge that produced the great fan vaults that are characteristically and uniquely English masterpieces of late Gothic; and high above that plaintive little expiration on the window jamb, the great bossy canopy, elaborated indeed, of the Divinity Schools spreads its splendor. In some colleges, a combination of failure of finance, modification of function, change of mind, could produce a morphological mutation which became a norm; by failing to complete a cruciform church, or halting progress of one intended to have an aisled nave supporting the aisle-less choir, when only one or two of the bays in the nave were built, a “T” form was produced, which was found to be very apt for Oxford purposes and survives in at least eight colleges.

The major early casualty in the colleges themselves was, however, caused by the failure of the patron. Cardinal Wolsey founded Cardinal College in 1525; when he fell, four years later, work ceased. By then, the dimensions of the great quadrangle which the visitor to Christ Church (as Cardinal College became upon its refoundation by Henry VIII) sees today were established, and the visitor can still extrapolate from the vestigial arches whose rhythm runs across its inner wall to the north, the encompassing cloisters that were never built. The element whose loss Oxford still mourns when comparisons are drawn with Cambridge is Wolsey’s chapel, which would surely have set out to surpass the supreme loveliness of Henry VII’s chapel at King’s. No plans survive but the conjectural drawings one finds in Colvin’s book (such drawings, by Daphne Hart, are a remarkable feature of the book) are convincing. But if Wolsey’s quad had materialized, we would now be without Christopher Wren’s crowning of Wolsey’s interrupted gatehouse, Tom Tower, and the noble church of St. Frideswide, now Oxford Cathedral, that Christ Church has for a chapel, would have gone.

One chapter deals with the belated impact of classical, post-Renaissance order on architectural practice in Oxford through the seventeenth century. The plan for a new solution for University College, about 1634, survives, but a Gothic survival design was preferred. The problems of Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre (1664–1669), designed in close emulation of the Theatre of Marcellus at Rome, with rather different functions, are expounded and illustrated at length, showing how the building had to be modified, simplified as so often happened, because of insufficient funds from the sponsoring benefactor’s purse. The classical idiom, however, was developed in the colleges, largely through the example and inspiration of two amateurs, dons with talent and an unusual expertise, well read in architectural history, Dean Aldrich and Dr. George Clarke.

The colleges had by now to cater to a very different clientele from that of the Middle Ages, having students of fairly exalted social status with expectations of polite accommodation within the colleges. Great names, following that of Wren, became involved in the Oxford scene. Hawksmoor’s endlessly fertile solutions survive on paper in great variety, and are here illustrated and analyzed fully, from the Gothic solution for All Souls, to one stage in Magdalen’s epic of indecision, hinted at above, to the original designs for the Radcliffe Camera finally modulated into stone by James Gibbs. By the early 1840s, competitions for two Oxford landmarks, Martyrs’ Memorial and what is now known as the Ashmolean, were won by sharply contrasting solutions, one in the Gothic and one in the Grecian style. Alternatives for the Ruskinian fantasy—Gothic vaulted with iron ribs and glass—of the University Museum, that actually materialized, are floated; earlier, Pugin’s intricately detailed solutions for Balliol are shattered in a debate so heated in the college’s governing body that record of it was deleted from the college register. From 1874 on Gothic began to yield to Jacobean revival, in the hands notably of T.G. Jackson, and although his buildings still figure prominently in the Oxford fabric, they too are shown being modified as they went on, and on occasions never materializing from the first visions on paper.

The nineteenth-century concern in Oxford for architecture, Colvin observes, “was by no means a natural product of an academic environment dedicated to a culture essentially literary and non-visual.” It was in a sense a spinoff from the great religious controversies of the 1840s and 1850s, when the ritual importance of Gothic architecture in religion was realized. By the early twentieth century, and the architectural revolution of the modern movement, the interest of the dons shifted, and once again they were mostly “determinedly indifferent” to contemporary developments in architecture until after 1945. Colvin deals very selectively indeed with recent projects that proved to be only castles in the air, concentrating on two spectacular misfires. One was for the new Nuffield College, for which Austen Harrison produced an extraordinary design in a bold “Siculo-Norman-with-touches-of-H.R. Richardson” style that was condemned out of hand by the patron, Lord Nuffield (“un-English and out of keeping with the best tradition of Oxford architecture”). The other was the exhilarating plan by Pier Luigi Nervi, which foundered on lack of funds, for building the Pitt Rivers Museum about a great central dome.

The pursuit of the unbuilt is not entirely new in Britain. It was carried out for Cambridge years ago, much more selectively, but in one of those supremely elegant little monographs that the then printer to the university, Brooke Crutchley, used to dispense at Christmas time to the delight of the favored few and despair of those not on the list. Only last year Felix Barber and Ralph Hyde published an enjoyable but also admirably erudite gallop through the enormous terrain of “London As It Might Have Been.” For Oxford, no one could be better qualified than Howard Colvin, resident guru in the university for matters architectural and tireless accumulator and no-less-scrupulous scrutineer of facts, compiler of the indispensable Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840. He stands well back from his subject. Emotion does not tinge his evaluations, but is nevertheless latent behind them. And he has no doubt about the validity of his project, that it is worthwhile to unveil to the world lineaments that never were, of a provincial city in the West Midlands of England.

In his preface he simply states, as accepted fact, that that city is “by common consent…one of the most remarkable concentrations of beautiful and interesting buildings in Europe.” Support for that can be found in sources other than local (murmuring about “dreaming spires” or “towery city and branchy between towers”). The French are not drawn to hyperbole about the artistic qualities of the English, but Hippolyte Taine pronounced, almost audibly to his own surprise, Oxford to be second in Europe only to Venice, and it is very warming for a local to notice that sheer delight kindles and dawdles on the faces of visitors that he is introducing to Radcliffe Square early on a sunny morning before the coachloads of tourists swarm.

The question—whether Oxford would be “better off” if the aborted projects had been realized—remains open. Some would certainly have been difficult. Some would have been out of scale (those who come to appreciate Palladio in the Veneto may be surprised, venturing into Britain, to discover the English Palladian is only half the over life size of the great master’s). Even Nervi’s remarkable plan to create indeed a Xanadu in North Oxford, off the Banbury Road—imagine, in the 1960s, such a dome as would have pleasured multitudes over and above the anthropologists who would have welcomed in it the extraordinary riches of the Pitt Rivers Museum: might it not have been difficult for Oxford’s digestion?

Although it is fascinating to consider the possibilities, admirably illustrated and analyzed in the book, that never materialized, one has to admit that much of the charm, though it be the dangerous charm of the picturesque, of Oxford comes from the city as aggregation, or almost organic accretion through the centuries of a multitude of projects in many different styles, some complete within themselves but many, perhaps more, incomplete. But Colvin’s book, besides the intrinsic fascination of his main theme, sheds also a sidelight, but a remarkably illuminating one, on what was built, and still survives in brick and stone.

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