arne jacobsen, st. catherine’s college, oxford 11

arne jacobsen, st. catherine’s college, oxford 11
extreme dieting that works
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.

more jacobsen.


  • seier+seier

    no interiors this time. when I was there in 93, I looked like a student and could walk everywhere. I am not quite sure what I look like anymore, but I certainly couldn’t walk everywhere 🙂

    who knows, maybe oxford has changed too…

  • Iqbal Aalam

    Your insight in Danish link with classicism is most interesting and illuminating. Knowing Pevesner’s European background his appreciation of Jacobsen is more easily understandable. Reyner Banham, on other hand was a product of British maverick school of ‘quirky’ thought, who accurately perceived the directions the new millennium may bring with it.
    I would have loved to hear his verdict on Zaha Hadid’s latest offerings, as I believe the use of moral yardstick on Zaha would have failed him badly.
    By the way, all the doors leading to St Catz interiors would have been wide open to you if you had your daughter with you.

  • seier+seier

    yes, banham would have seen right through much of hadid – but he would also have seen things you and I miss, if only because we are shaking our heads while looking 🙂

  • emilio11

    Which is the best book of Arne?

  • seier+seier

    I don’t know all of them.

    there is a very big, Danish one by carsten thau and kjeld vindum, simply called "arne jacobsen". it is even marketed as the largest book about him, suggesting that something failed and indeed the two authors never managed to make a single book out of their two contributions. nevertheless, it has many great moments and contains the fullest list of jacobsen’s works, if the final works abroad are somewhat neglected.

    there are some fine Spanish books too. I don’t own them, so I can’t rate them in any serious way. I like félix solaguren-beascoa’s jacobsen biography in three books but I haven’t spent all that much time with it.

    there is a much shorter book, an issue of 2G, which is a very good introduction (and which places a lot of attention on his final works).

  • tlpjr

    Man am I looking forward to reading this.

  • Matthew-1

    Very clean looking and seems to be very well maintained – critical for a modern building to age with any kind of grace.
    I wonder why the end columns are (or seem to be) criciform shape ?
    Is the cladding zinc ?

  • seier+seier

    I don’t know what the cladding is, it weathers rather oddly. I am thinking painted steel – maybe iqbal knows.

    I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the maintenance done there. as iqbal has pointed out, there are new windows in the students’ quarters and you can tell from the new flashing that work has been done on the roof here, but other than that it is a far cry from jacobsen’s national bank here in copenhagen which still looks like it was built yesterday.

    no doubt, financing maintenance in schools and in banking : not the same thing.

    you are right to point out that the cruciform end columns stand out somewhat. the project is very demonstrative in how the construction is exposed.

  • Iqbal Aalam

    The cladding is bronze panels. The appearance owes a lot to good sensible use of materials and detailing. I feel that maintenance leaves a lot to be desired and this is due to very strict and often ‘self-destruct’ grant systems for educational establishments. On other hand, considerable sums have recently been spent for replacing rusting steel pipes in underground service ducts, which remains invisible.

  • tlpjr

    End beam eccentrically loaded on the column?

  • seier+seier

    no, I don’t think so. the skin is that thin!

  • -fCh-

    I like the concrete columns the most. From this angle, the building projects itself outwardly, despite its proportions. Bringing the photo full-size, I wondered if Arne anticipated those panels would turn just like the modern art of his day.

  • tlpjr

    Also looks like the tops of those columns are halfway up the beam as if the beam was embedded half it’s height into the column. I’m wondering what might have been the deliberations here and if Arne considered exposing the flank of that end beam. We can’t know, I guess, but provoking to consider. But that might be reading Lou Kahn backward into Arne, No?

  • tlpjr

    First floor plate above grade seems too thin to be cantilevered out that far? What are those verticals behind the plate glass, suspension rods? Are the beams carrying the edge of the slab? Very Cool. This project reminds me a little bit of Salk in LaJolla. A thin comparison yes but still I can’t quite shake it.

  • tlpjr

    Now what’s going on with the brickwall bush brickwall bush in the fore and mid ground?
    I mean was is that? I like it, but what is it?

  • Iqbal Aalam

    Have a look at Arne Jacobsen set for some of the answers.

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