Architecture: So what if it's ugly and uncomfortable - it's important: Like it or not - and many don't - St Catherine's College, Oxford, is now officially great architecture. Jonathan Glancey reports

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The Independent Culture
'DELIGHTED,' says Lord Bullock; 'terrible,' says John Simopoulos. The former vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford and the St Catherine's philosophy don have just learnt that the buildings of the college, founded in 1960, have been listed Grade I by Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, on the recommendation of English Heritage.

Over the past three years English Heritage has been studying Britain's post-war educational buildings; of the 750 its historians have considered, 95 buildings belonging to 46 schools, colleges and universities were listed last week. St Catherine's College, Oxford, along with the Le Corbusier-inspired buildings around Fulton Court at Sussex University, have been listed Grade I.

This means that these buildings are officially considered to be of international historic and architectural interest. They rank above the Tate Gallery and equal in stature to our medieval cathedrals and greatest stately homes.

'What nonsense,' snorts Mr Simopoulos. 'There are one or two good public spaces in St Catherine's, but its faults are legion: the students' rooms are far too small, the plumbing and heating are a disaster, there's no sound insulation - you can't blow your nose without knocking someone off his chair next door. Temperatures can rise to 120 F in summer because of the acres of glass that run the length of the two main buildings. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on trying to strengthen the foundations over the past five years because the architect and engineer got them horribly wrong.'

Has anything good come out of St Catherine's? 'The students, of course, and the gardens,' says Mr Simopoulos. 'They've been done by one of the fellows; they're marvellous, the saving grace.' Is Mr Simopoulos being wise after the event? After all, he was a don at St Cat's when Alan Bullock commissioned the buildings from the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in 1957. Didn't he and his fellow dons voice criticism then? 'We weren't consulted. Alan and his pals junketed off to Denmark for weeks and came back with this miserable Dane. Jacobsen was gloomy as hell, a symphony by Sibelius brought more or less to life. He was one of those architects who talk to other architects about architecture through their buildings. Can't see he was very interested in what I'd call his customers.

'Everyone licked Alan's arse at the time. He was very impressed by Jacobsen, even let him design the ghastly cutlery you eat off in hall. When Alan showed the fellows the new knives and forks, they 'oohed' and 'aahed'; I said I thought they looked like a DIY abortion kit designed by Charles Addams.'

How does Lord Bullock, Master of St Catherine's, 1960-80, reply to all this? 'We chose an architect in 1957; it wasn't a good time for British architecture,' he says. 'So Maurice Bowra, Arthur Norrington, Jack Lancaster (the university surveyor) and me tootled around and looked at things abroad. First I went on a trip organised by the Ford Foundation to look at American architecture and then to Europe. We might have chosen an American architect, but we couldn't afford to pay the fares back and forth across the Atlantic. In Denmark - which was very fashionable then - we first looked at the work of Jorn Utzen. He was designing the Sydney Opera House and we knew he wouldn't have the time to work on a relatively small college, too.

'So we asked Jacobsen, a difficult man who didn't care whether he got the commission or not. He came to Oxford, asked for plans of all the colleges and took away the designs of New College - the model, I suppose, of all the Oxford colleges that followed. We didn't hear from him for six months and then back he came with the design.

'I thought it was marvellous, but then I'm a Classicist and this was a Classical scheme brought up to date; brilliant proportions, circles within squares, the golden section and so on. If there are any faults today, they're mine. We didn't have enough money to build as thoroughly as we might have. Too much sun coming through the big, single-glazed windows? That's because we cut out the sun louvres Jacobsen designed. It could be better, but we've made many improvements over the years and the latest scheme for enlarging the college is based on Jacobsen's original designs, but brought up to date.'

Like it or not, St Catherine's College is now officially great architecture. In The Buildings of England, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote: 'Here is a perfect piece of architecture. It has a consistent plan, and every detail is meticulously worked out. Self-discipline is its message, expressed in terms of a geometry pervading the whole and the parts and felt wherever one moves or stops.'

But, as Pevsner's pupil, the critic Peter Reyner Banham, wrote of St Catherine's, 'an absolute architectural morality prevails - there can be no mistakes and no excuses, no afterthoughts and no escape clauses . . . no room for improvisation, no exploiting the happy accident - and no room for growth. The architectural possibilities are satisfied and closed.'

If the undergraduates did not like it, then 'that may be an argument against them rather than against the college,' said Pevsner. His final verdict was that 'the college may have to wait until, by the swing of the pendulum of history, the ideal of self-permissiveness among students becomes once more the ideal of self-discipline.'

English Heritage believes the pendulum has swung in favour of post- war educational buildings such as St Cat's, and there is no doubt that St Catherine's and the 45 other newly listed schools, colleges and universities are of historic interest.

'Fashion is by its nature fickle,' says Martin Cherry, head of listing at English Heritage. 'Buildings such as St Catherine's may or may not be liked at any particular time. Until recently few people had a good word to say about Keble College, Oxford, a harsh and dogmatic design by William Butterfield; Keble is difficult to like, but deeply impressive and, historically, very important. St Catherine's is like Keble. We don't expect everyone to like all the buildings we list, but our job is one of stewardship. We have to rely on our instincts and expertise to identify and protect buildings of importance, whether fashionable or not. Educational buildings of the Fifties and Sixties will seem uninteresting to many people; but, because they are so readily dismissed, we have been making an extra-close study of them.

'Our next study,' he says, 'is of post-war industrial and commercial buildings. Some we recommend will be considered downright ugly by those unaware of their historical and architectural importance. We must look at the long-term future of buildings. The tide in taste always changes; we have to be dispassionate about the style of buildings and concerned about why they might be important.

'Eventually we will work our way through all the building types of post- war Britain, hoping to list all the most important. We can recommend buildings as long as they are 30 years old (St Catherine's was built between 1960 and 1964) and, in exceptional circumstances, 'spot list' very recent buildings if we feel they are in danger of being robbed of their character; the Willis Faber building in Ipswich designed by Foster Associates in the early Seventies is a good example.'

English Heritage's grand plan to list post-war buildings of every sort from Sixties sugar silos in Liverpool to infants' schools in East Barnet is not part of some lunatic strategy to turn Britain into one vast heritage centre (that is happening anyway). 'Far from it,' says Dr Cherry. 'By listing buildings such as St Catherine's, English Heritage is able to recommend grants for their physical upkeep and bring expert opinion to bear on their future use and development. We're not trying to pickle post-war schools and universities; we're just trying to help them to make the most of themselves.

'St Catherine's is listed Grade I for its own good as well as for the sake of history,' says Dr Cherry. 'Exactly,' says Lord Bullock. 'More nonsense,' says John Simopoulos.

(Photograph omitted)

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