5. The Hall

The Hall is entered through the Marble Hall, but its character is completely different. Where the Marble Hall is evidence of Sir Isaac Wolfson’s interest in impressing through the confident brightness of its material, the Hall impresses through its broad, equal and expansive space. The Hall is the highest building in a college which is elsewhere very horizontal and low; it is where all members of College come to dine and meet without distinction: student, staff, fellows. Like the Berlin Quad and other parts of the College, it is both square and asymmetrical; the entrance is to one side of its east wall, not central or paralleled.

Photo: John Cairns

The architectural critic Michael Brawne wrote this on visiting the Hall on the college’s opening:

“The brief for the college asked for a dining hall in the traditional sense after the appropriateness of such a ceremonial form had been debated by the members of the college at some length. This hall, moreover, was to be the visible focus of the complex. It is a tall square room seating 216 with no high table arrangement in any way implied by its form. The roof is a pyramid, stepped on the outside and slightly cranked on section. Three narrow slots in the roof provide sharp lines of daylight with some feeling of glare which averts the eye downwards. A glimpse of the outside can be seen sideways through the openings in the wall. It is an appropriately introverted room concentrating attention on the function within it and a contrast to the open, outward-looking spaces which form the bulk of the college.”

Brawne continues: “this inward focusing of attention makes all the wall surfaces of the space extremely important. These are boarded in chestnut, a fine-grained tan-coloured timber which glows splendidly when the artificial light is turned on. The eye moves from an understanding of the clearly structured space to the pattern of the wood grain.”

Over the years the lustre of the wood has faded. The original conception of light streaming into the Hall from the slats in the roofing was over-optimistic. There has consequently been much debate about how to make the space brighter. At one point the Governing Body voted to open a large window in the south-facing wall, but this was blocked by the listing of the building by the local authority. Artworks have been hung on the walls to provide brightness; currently we are lucky to host a collection of Kurdish nineteenth century carpets belonging to Emeritus Fellow Roger Tomlin.

Image: Bill Toomey © Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections

Isaiah Berlin used the phrase “unpyramided” to describe the organising principle of the Wolfson community. It’s a rare word, and perhaps worth considering in the context of the great pyramid which hangs ironically over the architecture of the Hall.

Until the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium was opened the Hall was the location for all the College’s named lectures.

Adjacent to the Hall, and divided from it by a sliding wall, is the Haldane Room, named after the Haldane family who lived in a House named “Cherwell” on the Wolfson site until the 1960s.

You can get an interesting view down into the Hall through the internal windows in the Upper Common Room.

Tim Hitchens