Our Architecture

In May 1967, the decision was unanimously taken to invite the architectural firm Powell & Moya to design the College’s buildings. Like many post-war architects, Powell & Moya had made their name building out of the rubble of the Blitz, the most famous examples of their work being the ‘Skylon’, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and the Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico, completed in 1962. The initial ideas were often sketched by Hidalgo Moya on his commute into Waterloo every morning, and initial plans were approved by January 1968. Construction on the site began shortly afterwards, with HRH Queen Elizabeth II laying the foundation stone in May of that year.

Wolfson is often described as ‘Brutalist’ in design, but this is only partly true. On the one hand, the College was built when Brutalism was in favour and its design was partly inspired by Le Corbusier: structures generally had a functional emphasis and beton brut (raw or rough concrete) was used for the construction of massive walls and forms. On the other hand, Powell & Moya were also strongly influenced by the Scandinavian movement known as the New Empiricism or New Humanism, as practised by Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (who was among the architects considered for the project). While espousing the honesty of materials used in their unadorned state and exposing structure, the New Humanism refined their forms to avoid brutality, making often elegant compositions with a rich interplay of many other materials, creating contrasts of texture, lightness and heaviness. Wolfson, for instance, makes extensive use of raw concrete juxtaposed with granite cladding, slender columns, extensive glazing and bright, white walls that ring our Quads. The College embodies much of the softening and human characteristics of the New Humanist tradition.

A black and white photo of Berlin Quad on a rainy day, showing the cloisters supported by white columns.

With these principles in mind, Wolfson’s buildings were deliberately integrated into the environment. Powell & Moya deliberately intended for the College to have an unassuming frontage when seen from Linton Road, with no gate or tower. Instead, Wolfson is oriented towards the Oxfordshire countryside to the east, opening out onto the River Cherwell. The site is landscaped to slope down to the riverbank, concealing five storeys of accommodation behind an unimposing entrance. In line with Sir Isaiah Berlin’s vision for the College, Wolfson is meant to welcome rather than intimidate new arrivals, and its buildings deliberately avoid symmetry or axial arrangements which might suggest hierarchy. The buildings were deliberately designed with windows lining almost every wall and corridor, welcoming the outside in.

Aerial shot of River Quad, showing the 'Berlin Wall' to the South.

While Wolfson College was designed to break with Oxford’s rigidity, it nods to a design language drawn from the wider University. The College is still structured around enclosed quads, many of which are surrounded with cloisters supported on narrow, white columns. The central quad is known as the Berlin Quad after the College’s founding President, while Tree Quad integrates many of the mature trees present on the original site (which would be impossible today due to stricter regulations). The biggest of the quads is River Quad, which features the College’s punting harbour, embraced by twin wings of accommodation. The southernmost of these is defined by the ‘Berlin Wall’, which curves round to the left, much like the shore of the town of Portofino where Sir Isaiah often holidayed.


Over the years, as the College has grown, Wolfson has extended beyond its original buildings. The College has always aimed to provide as much accommodation for students and their families as possible, and over time this has led to the development of purpose-built blocks, including the Robin Gandy and Catherine Marriott Buildings, as well as the purchase of existing houses on Linton, Chadlington and Garford Road.

In 2012 work began on the academic wing of the College, including the auditorium, café and the new entrance to the lodge. While staying true to the style and features of the original buildings, incorporating pillars and vast windows, this section of the College refines the Wolfson vernacular and uses brighter, modern materials. The Academic Wing is now home to many of our research clusters and the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium.

The Academic Wing of the College, a bright white building housing the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, shot looking towards the new Porters' Lodge.

In 2014, the College acquired the Bishop’s house and gardens, formally the home of the Bishop of Oxford. The orchard and landscaped gardens have become a much-loved area for quiet contemplation by members of the Wolfson community.