arne jacobsen, st. catherine’s college, oxford 11
Image by seier+seier
st. catherine’s college, oxford, england 1959-1964.
architect: arne jacobsen, 1902-1971.
from the quad, the library.
the "skin and bones" architecture of the central buildings impressed me enormously as a student, this was how I wanted to work. today, we hide away construction behind tons of insulation and cheap aluminium cladding, and architecture is only half the art it could be.
in writing, st. catherine’s college has been called everything from pure bauhaus to miesian minimalism, a motel and a hangar, without telling us much about this strange design and its origins. pevnser called it a piece of perfect architecture while reyner banham said that it offered no room for improvisation, no exploiting the happy accident. really, they were describing classicism from two different moral perspectives, two different generations.
if we accept that jacobsen the modernist kept returning to the roots of his classicist training, he did so at different times and under the influence of different architects and so never arrived at the same place twice.
teaching at the royal academy in copenhagen in the 1920’s was conducted under the influence of carl petersen who had headed a classicist rebelion against the rampant individualism of the older generation. among the ideals were adherence to type, the perfection of which expressed the architect’s sensitivity, and its endless repetition. make no mistake, endless repetition of an estabished type was never a modernist invention to do with machine fabrication; it was inhereted from the classicists and given new meaning.
the classicist fearlessness in the face of repetition was tempered by jacobsen’s admiration for asplund who was considered the poet of the movement along with his partner in crime, sigurd lewerentz, and an architect of rarefied effects. not quite the example for all to follow, he was later hailed as.
jacobsen’s first return to classicism, following his berlin-inspired modern houses of the late twenties and early thirties, happened under the influence of italian fascist architecture and – again – asplund who had himself abandoned the constructivism of his 1930 stockholm exhibition in favour of his very own take on italian rationalism.
the second return came around 1950 when american glass box minimalism replaced jacobsen’s gentle brick regionalism of the forties. the very obvious references to eero saarinen and S.O.M. may have secured jacobsen’s name as a cool modernist at the time, but they also made him look like an epigone with a deft hand at furniture design, a view of jacobsen you can still meet, not least here in denmark.
the third, and to me most interesting, distinct period of classicism began around 1960. the main works are the national bank in copenhagen and st. catherine’s college. they carried a level of repetition not seen since the 1920’s and indeed some very rarefied effects like the extreme proportions of columns and beams and the way they project through glass. materially and geometrically, these projects are rich and they contain many cultural allusions, the most obvious being the mirroring of a nearby 18th century temple front in the national bank.
these late jacobsen buildings are related to contemporary works of stirling and the smithsons in their sophisticated and exploitive relationship to the history of modern architecture, indeed the whole history of architecture. it is worth remembering that such projects formed the architectural and intellectual context of the rise of post-modernism, it was never a strict diet of pruitt–igoe served on a tabula rasa…
I am not going to try to turn jacobsen into a team X member, but his strong dislike of le corbusier had allowed him to escape some of the worst mistakes of the CIAM and to remain open to certain historical models when they proved viable, at oxford most noticably the "new college", dating from 1379. after my first visit to st. catherine’s back in the nineties, I asked knud holscher, who was made a partner by jacobsen to build st. catherine’s and start a UK office, about influences. while this is clearly not a question easily answered, he did mention craig ellwood as someone staff members studied around 1960.
in many ways, this makes perfect sense. jacobsen rarely made a straight reference to mies, rather he took his cues from what we might call mies-once-removed: people like bunschaft at S.O.M., saarinen, ellwood. the national bank and st. catherine’s don’t actually look anything like an ellwood building, so maybe the influence should be understood as something more general. ellwood, californian by choice, had relaxed the miesian standards, he would change infill materials in his steel bays more freely, he would allow steel bays to wander off and become garden elements. in short, as an example, he offered freedom.
interestingly, craig ellwood was later, much later, to influence renzo piano, post-pompidou, and once again in a liberating manner. considering that ellwood never actually existed, perhaps a liberating influence was to be expected. I’ll devote the next few slides to ellwood and holscher before returning to oxford.