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Wolfson College, Oxford (Powell & Moya, 1968-74)

I’ve been doing weekend tours of the modernist colleges at Oxford and last weekend I cycled up the river to Wolfson. It was founded in 1965 as a graduate-only college. Unlike the contemporary St Catherine’s College it maintains the traditional college layout of quads and ranges with the added feature of a punting harbour on the Cherwell.

The college’s first president was Isiah Berlin who envisaged a centre for academic excellence built on a foundation of egalitarianism. There is no top table at hall and graduate students sit on the governing body of the college.

I feel bad that I visited St Catz’s on a day of sparkling sunshine but Wolfson late on a cloudy November afternoon. In the low, grey light the college did seem rather like a very progressive prison colony. I wonder whether the college uses its listed status to put off any modernisation or refurbishment that might be required; of course it’s important to maintain the integrity of the architectural whole but, whether through inertia or not, it is done at the expense of Wolfson being a pleasant environment for modern students. 

That said it is not an unpleasant place to be, just a bit colourless and dated. The layout and design is admirable for its completeness and the way it updated the traditional model of Oxford colleges. It could just do with a very sympathetic tidy up.