architectural contrasts

I've spent the past few days exploring some interesting architecture, thanks to the Open Doors events and a conference. Going from old to modern back to old and to new again has been intriguing if not disorientating.

First on the list was the new Centre for Islamic Studies in Oxford. This huge development looks finished from the main road, but clearly has a long way to go inside. The guide explained that they were trying to amalgamate traditional Islamic style with the Oxford collegiate model of building. In some senses, this works, especially the main 'quad' with its 'cloisters', which has a feel of a Moorish courtyard, but it remains to be seen what the rest of the place will look like when it's finished.

Then I visited St. Catherine's College, and was over-awed by the beautiful simplicity of the modernist design. Newer modifications have been made to Arne Jacobsen's model (principally double-glazing), and the college has expanded with more buildings, but it is the original buildings that still stand out. Being able to sit in an original Jacobsen Swan chair in the library was a privilege that the students perhaps don't realise. The dining hall was so light and spacious, but the highlight was nosying round the SCR (with a guide, of course). It maintained its 'man with briefcase' look - an air of elegant calm, sophisticated modernism, so far removed from the destructive concrete Corbusian brutalism that most people conflate with all 60s design.

The next contrast was a visit to Brighton. A mix of Blackpool, Hebden Bridge and Islington. The clash of architectural styles just in the streets was fun. A visit round the Pavilion emphasized the somewhat oxymoronic juxtaposition of styles even further, with its 'Indian' exterior and over the top Chinoiserie interior. It confirmed my impression of George IV at any rate.

Finally, the University of Sussex. Contemporaneous with Jacobsen's design for St. Catz (1962-64), Sir Basil Spence's architecture is more utilitarian and vernacular. For me, it felt understated, and I much preferred the experimentation and attention to detail that Jacobsen enforced over St. Catz.


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