St Catherine's College, Oxford, UK

Arne Jacobsen
Date Built
Opened 1962
Manor Road
St. Catherine's College sits at the end of Manor Road on the eastern fringes of Oxford.  In this semi-rural setting beside the River Cherwell, the Danish architect created what Nicholas Pevsner has described as, "... a perfect piece of architecture."  Over the years the campus has grown with the addition of two further building projects.  This page will deal with the original Jacobsen buildings.  The additions in 1994 and 2005 can be seen elsewhere on this site.

The college website has a detailed description of all the elements of the site.  They begin by pointing out that, "...Unlike most quads, however, St. Catherine's is not closed off; instead hedge-lined walks lead to other buildings, and to garden areas which are planted with a fascinating variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. The whole is flanked on one side by the river Cherwell, and on the other by Merton College's playing fields which themselves border the University Parks, giving St. Catherine's an apparently rural setting which is yet only minutes away from the centre of Oxford."

Arne Jacobsen considered the gardens to be an integral part of the overall design of the college, and so today the garden, which has been cared for and adjusted over the years, is now a "Registered Garden" and the buildings are Grade 1 Listed.

In the plan below, the original campus buildings are coloured light grey.  The later additions are located to the north and are grouped around the car park.

Entering between the Alan Bullock Building and the Mary Sunley Building, you see the water garden stretching ahead of you.

The Master's Lodging is off, on its own, to the right.  On the left is a long low building that contains student accommodation, arranged in the conventional Oxford "staircase" format.

Below is the Master's Lodging.

Below you can see the entrances to Jacobsen's Junior and Senior Common Rooms and the kitchen and Dining Hall.

The lawn features a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. 

A pathway takes you over the the water feature, through the building and into the quad.

At the heart of the quad is a circular lawn with the Wolfson Library off to the right (see below).

Pevsner says that the library building, "... has its upper part projecting.  The functional reason here is that the projecting part represents the gallery. ...

.... (Inside) the spiral staircase of iron up to the gallery is treated as thinly as possible in order to not interfere with the sense of spacial order.  The furniture is designed by the architect, here as in most places."

The accommodation blocks also have protruding upper floors and floor to ceiling windows.

Off on its own is the music room.  Pevsner describes it as, "... another essay in geometry, but here much more complex.  It is a hexagon set across another hexagon, seemingly windowless, because the windows are only long slits in the bits of the wall where the outer hexagon meets the triangular bit of the inner hexagon which appears outside."

Rising above the college is a bell tower made up of two high slabs of concrete.

According to the plan, this building contains the gym and squash court.

Below is the circular bike shed.

Arne Jacobsen's words of wisdom are on display.

Pevsner concludes his survey of St. Catherine's with some words of criticism including the thought that the student rooms are too small (which he adds is a common theme in many universities), and the fact that perhaps too much of the available money was spent on furniture.  He felt that the stairwells in the accommodation blocks were too generous and, if they had been more modest, there would have been more room in the students' rooms.

However, Pevsner's criticisms pale into insignificance when compared to those of John Simopoulos, the St Catherine's philosophy don, upon hearing in 1993 that the college had been listed Grade 1.  Quoted in an article in the Independent his reaction was, "... What nonsense, ... There are one or two good public spaces in St Catherine's, but its faults are legion: the students' rooms are far too small, the plumbing and heating are a disaster, there's no sound insulation - you can't blow your nose without knocking someone off his chair next door. Temperatures can rise to 120 F in summer because of the acres of glass that run the length of the two main buildings. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on trying to strengthen the foundations over the past five years because the architect and engineer got them horribly wrong."

In the same article Lord Bullock, who was responsible for choosing Jacobsen, responded that, "...we asked Jacobsen, a difficult man who didn't care whether he got the commission or not. He came to Oxford, asked for plans of all the colleges and took away the designs of New College - the model, I suppose, of all the Oxford colleges that followed. We didn't hear from him for six months and then back he came with the design.  I thought it was marvellous, but then I'm a Classicist and this was a Classical scheme brought up to date; brilliant proportions, circles within squares, the golden section and so on. If there are any faults today, they're mine. We didn't have enough money to build as thoroughly as we might have. Too much sun coming through the big, single-glazed windows? That's because we cut out the sun louvres Jacobsen designed. It could be better, but we've made many improvements over the years and the latest scheme for enlarging the college is based on Jacobsen's original designs, but brought up to date."