Designed by Arne Jacobsen

ST CATHERINE'S COLLEGE

Oxford, United Kingdom

UNIFYING ENVIRONMENT

The idea behind St Catherine’s College was to balance innovative and traditional elements on Oxford University’s campus. In 1957, the university’s newest and largest college was to create a unifying building that would set a new standard for college buildings in Oxford and the rest of the world.
The architect Arne Jacobsen was given this task. Today, the result remains as an understated landmark in the history of architecture. “It’s all done with restraint, the minimum number of elements and materials, with everything beautifully executed. It’s extraordinarily refined. Jacobsen showed you don’t need to show off to get recognition,” says Rab Bennetts from Bennetts Architects, one of the  UK’s largest architectural firms.

The buildings follow a strict module of squares and repetitions that follow the tradition of British universities. There is the danger that this might be boring, but it is not the case at all. One of the buildings is clad all the way down, another is open with a brise-soleil, and a third is closed with brick. It draws much inspiration from Mies van der Rohe but with a Scandinavian sensibility.

The Banquet Hall at St Catherine’s College evokes the iconic Oxford halls where three long student tables lead to a diagonal table for the professors and staff. The content and proportions are the same as in the older Oxford colleges, but the furniture is light, bright and modern. 

Students sit on light Series 7™ chairs, while the staff sit on specially developed Oxford™ chairs. The Oxford™ chairs feature the same high back as at the other colleges, but are ergonomically shaped and can be rotated to facilitate the conversation around the table, while the high back offers privacy. The result is a banquet hall, where students and staff talk, eat and study in a completely modernist universe.

In the library, Arne Jacobsen has introduced a more open kind of library atmosphere that can act as an informal meeting place for students. Swan™ chairs are arranged at specific distances around a table, so you can share the table with strangers undisturbed and still be able to talk with the fellow students and colleagues who pass by. Today, Jacobsen’s focus on bringing people together might seem obvious. But in 1957, when women were not yet allowed to study at Oxford University, it was quite an eye opener.

The buildings and interior have not changed much since it opened in 1963, and the whole area has received a Grade I listing, the UK’s highest protection level. ”A lot of contemporary architecture is at its best on completion and then progressively loses its sheen over time, while buildings like this mature,” says Rab Bennetts. And thus, Jacobsen managed to set the new modern standard for university buildings.

Category: Education
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom
Project completed: 1962
Architect: Arne Jacobsen
Areas: Dining Hall, Lecture theatres, Classrooms, Library
Products: Swan™, Oxford™, Table series, Series 7™