Imagine oneself an elite academic strutting majestically through a magnificent quadrangle
Recommended by Elain Harwood, author and architectural historian with Historic England: “Here’s a cheap and cheerful way of spending an Easter or summer vacation in historic Oxford – or Cambridge, or other great cities such as Edinburgh and Bath – with added bonuses. One is to imagine oneself an elite academic strutting majestically through a magnificent quadrangle, dreaming of changing the world. The other is simply to enjoy some of the best modern architecture in Britain. And while it is equally easy to stay at Churchill or Robinson colleges in Cambridge (respectively by Sheppard, Robson & Partners and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia) or St Anne’s or Somerville in Oxford (Sir Giles Scott, HKPA, Philip Dowson and others), one stands out above all the others: St Catherine’s, its main phases built in 1960-6 by Arne Jacobsen. Before the virus it was available outside term time for conferences (the Society stayed some years ago for a weekend event) or you could book as an individual.
“All the rooms are single study bedrooms. You can choose large en suites in the 21st century ranges by Stephen Hodder, some only recently completed. But these are no contest for the real thing: the smaller, rather austere little rooms, now also with en-suite facilities, in the two long ranges by the master. The fitted furniture is the original; chairs have had to be replaced over time but the college must have more Jacobsen pieces than anywhere else in Britain. The windows have been renewed with listed building consent but the rooms can still overheat.
“But the bedrooms are only a small part of the experience. The two long ranges of study bedrooms flank a line of communal buildings: the common rooms, dining hall, library and lecture rooms. The centrepiece is the great dining hall, where you sit on Jacobsen chairs at Jacobsen tables under his great concrete beams, and look up to the high table with its original high-backed Oxford chairs designed specially for the college; Jacobsen was deeply miffed when the college ordered cooking equipment without first consulting him. You might also get to see the elegant library with its bookcases and Swan chairs; there are more in the common rooms. The pièce de résistance is the Senior Common Room, where there are more of the Oxford chairs; eat here at a conference and you get real Jacobsen cutlery, including special spoons for the left-handed.
“Jacobsen also designed the landscape, shades of green that relate to the carefully chosen yellow Uxbridge bricks. Clipped hedges counter short brick walls that break up the long vistas and support little pergolas, and a long canal to the west. The flat site was once the Oxford Corporation tip – hard to imagine now, but it is very low lying, close to the river (where there is a separate music room) and sublimely tranquil. It is hard to imagine that you are only a couple of streets away from the city centre.”