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Modernism’s war on Oxford's identity

By Laya Badi

Author's own work (2023)

At the beginning of October, the students arrived, acclimating to their new city and preparing to begin their new chapter in life. I met an elderly man in an Oxfordian bookshop on St Michael Street. I explained that I am a first-year architecture student, and he replied that he despises modern architecture. He complained about how modern architecture was ruining his city and wondered why the world preferred such architecture over traditional ornamental ones. As someone who grew up in Qatar, filled with modern architecture, I felt perplexed. “How is modern architecture seen as ugly here rather than progressive?” I thought.

His opinion struck me. I became obsessed with urbanism and why many cities differentiate themselves. There is a sense of character in every city that expresses the local's personalities. Aldo Rossi analysed this phenomenon. This locus (Aldo Rossi defines “Locus” as a memory of the society in a specific location) is what differentiates residents in every city, from a New Yorker to a Parisian, an Oxfordian to a Qatari resident. According to Rossi, cities are giant man-made objects with a history that is characterised by their own form and history. This further defines Oxford’s epoch. With its urban artefacts of tan Cotswold stones made into vaulted ceilings, pointed arches and spires All in perfect harmony looks like a poor neighbour to the modernised Zaha Hadid’s ‘Investcorp building.

The structure designed by Zaha Hadid is made of a reflective metal material that has been manipulated into a parametric shape. This paradox of harsh curves of complex geometric structures and the absence of proportional windows offends the community and its identity. This seems foreign to its historical surroundings of established colleges made during the 11th to 15th centuries. Oxford's architectural significance in the UK is defined by such colleges, with notable works by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor dominating the Gothic and Baroque styles.

Lake, Q. (2015). Investcorp Building.

In contrast, despite being built in 2021, Jesus College's Cheng Yu Tung building on Cornmarket Street appears to have respected Oxford's tradition. The awkward window placements and brown structured stones emerge to rationally modernise classical architecture. With a dramatic Tudor structure to its left and a neoclassical commercial building on the right. The college does not entirely stand out but compliments its neighbours. This particular building astonished me as it was hugely criticised by the bookseller. It may not be in the gothic style, but it does relate to its surroundings. Nonetheless, it may not portray the Oxfordian identity.

Author's own work (2023)

Has modern architecture been the greatest danger to Oxford? The elderly man’s reaction seemed appropriate to reject and challenge modern architecture in this age. Oxford is composed of traditional, historical continuity to preserve its identity. Rossi rejects the idiosyncratic culture of the architecture industry and reminds us that individual reputations and accomplishments are less important than our cities. Aldo Rossi argues against the city's neglect and destruction as a repository of society's collective memory. As a result, this demonstrates Oxford's desire to preserve traditional memory.

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