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…

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