1.    As you enter the College…

The exceptionally welcoming, friendly atmosphere that so distinguishes Wolfson College is partly the result of an affinity between Isaiah Berlin, our first President, and his chosen architects Powell & Moya. Their design answered Berlin’s aspiration that this new college should avoid the worst characteristics of old Oxbridge colleges and be free from the bonds of tradition, formality and hierarchy.

Image: Andy Spain

From the earliest days architects have imbued their buildings with a sense of formality and hierarchy by the use of symmetry and centralised routes, entrances and exits, but in order to achieve Berlin’s aims Powell & Moya comprehensively avoided any significant symmetrical or axial arrangements. The most obvious examples of asymmetry are the original front entrance (now the entrance to the Buttery) which was set in a corner, and the important route to Hall which leads to a set of steps in the corner of the asymmetrically planned Berlin Quad. While the Hall, normally an important symmetrical space, is square, one enters and exits in the corners: there is no raised dais for high table so the flat floor and square plan create an equality amongst all diners. From the Berlin Quad routes to all parts of the College are positioned asymmetrically near the corners of the quad, with the walkway routes leading to all the rooms in the residential wings, exceptionally, placed on only one side of each block.

Image: Andy Spain

This arrangement is an essential design strategy which integrates the accommodation into the landscape. At the opening Berlin commended Powell & Moya, saying “they seemed to understand the genius of this space … respond[ing] with the greatest sensibility to the trees, the water, the green grass”. The close relationship between buildings and landscape throughout the College complex is fundamental to the sense of informality and enjoyment.

While Powell & Moya were avowedly modernist architects, they had learned that ‘being in nature’ is one of the essences of classical academies – whether the open colonnades of Greek stoas, Virgilian walks, or monastic cloister gardens. There is no college in Oxford or Cambridge in which the natural environment is so constantly present. The open site with views to the river, and the orientation, were exploited by extending long wings of accommodation out from the Berlin Quad towards the river. Set wide apart, like arms, they embrace the landscape. The public access walkways on the north side of each block mean the private rooms all look southwards into the gardens: whether moving around the buildings or in the privacy of a room, nature is always present. The walkways are full of light and greenery, allowed in by the glazed screens between the regular rhythm of slender columns.

Image: Andy Spain

Powell & Moya’s design strategies informed the more recent additions: the residential M block and Catherine Marriott building, the new entrance, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, and the Academic Wing. The new entrance is not a formal gateway, but is quite low on the side of the tower which naturally ventilates the auditorium: this tower is not central but asymmetrically placed on a corner of the auditorium, and the internally twisting roof form is another homage to asymmetry. The auditorium, unusually, is not a dark space, but has windows so that it is bright in the day with the all-important trees and sky always visible.

Powell & Moya’s design of Wolfson College is rare amongst concrete modernist buildings of the post-war period in being very much loved by so many people. It is an exemplar of a sensitive, humane modern building. In this way the design sustains the spirit of Isaiah Berlin.

Alan Berman