6. The Berlin Wall

In an article in Isaiah Berlin and Wolfson College (2009), former Governing Body Fellow Jeremy Black summarises the story of ‘The Berlin Wall’.

Photo: Isobel Holling

“Not everyone who visits Wolfson today is aware that the architecture of the main buildings deliberately evokes that of a town on the Italian Riviera. On some of the earlier versions of the plan of the College prepared by the architectural partnership of Powell and Moya, the shape of B block is different from the curved shape which it eventually acquired. The earlier plans show it with two straight sides linked at an oblique angle – what architects call a ‘crank’. Isaiah Berlin had a particular interest in this point of the design.

At that time Sir Isaiah Berlin had a house in Portofino. In the summer of 1968 Sir Philip (Powell) was bombarded with postcards of the place, sometimes with an Italian postmark, later with an Oxford one, showing the coincidental similarity of the shape of Portofino’s harbour with Wolfson’s – Portofino’s with a curved range of buildings on one side, Wolfson’s with a crank. On the first of the postcards Sir Isaiah had written “Don’t you see? This is the way to do it. It looks absolutely lovely and if you bend the postcard you’ll see just what it is. It’s terribly nice.”

Later more postcards arrived, for example “I continue to persecute you. The colours [of the postcard] are hideous, but you’ll have no difficulty in abstracting your vision and Moya’s from them. The shape tells its own story, surely? Can it be the sylvan scene of “Cherwell”, where everything curls and curves, and the trees, branches, grass, stream, each pursues its irregular complex lines and fantastic patterns – is it here that rectilinear rigours are most suitable? Let me persuade you to a shape less stiff!”

Image: Wolfson College Archives

Powell & Moya relented. In an interview with Powell for the College Record in 1992 he recalled that “meanwhile, we had been having a go at making the curve work, with suitable changes in the landscaping and the treatment of the water. I was, finally, happy with the result, Moya a little less so – but we had made the change. Block B’s curved wall was affectionately known in our office as the Berlin Wall.”

Jeremy Black