It's the city of dreaming spires - but not as you know it. Adrian Mourby unearths a tradition of cutting-edge architecture that's alive and well

Come off it. This is the city of Brideshead and Morse. Walk down the High Street and you'd think tweed jackets and elbow patches were still in fashion.

No, that's picture-postcard Oxford. Architecturally, this city has always been at the forefront of what's new. Wren and Hawksmoor were cutting-edge when they threw up the Sheldonian Theatre and All Souls. The new quadrangle at All Souls was attacked when it was built in 1710 for ruining the Oxford skyline with its newfangled "Gothick" towers. Keble was controversial, too. In 1866, William Butterfield's polychromatic brickwork was considered revolutionary - although posterity still isn't entirely sure it was a good thing. (A notice attached to the building declared, "This is a college, not a Fair Isle sweater.")

In the 20th century, the Fascist New Bodleian and the new Lutyensesque Nuffield College made distinct statements about the direction of 1930s architecture, while the 1970s saw Oxford erect its brutalist physics lab on Parks Road. OK, you'd think the architects responsible didn't really like people - or Oxford - very much if they were happy to put their names to something like that, but at the time it was state of the art.

Yes but that's all history. What's new today that isn't just a pastiche of the dreaming spires cliché?

Well, there's St Catherine's College by Arne Jacobson. This is a wholly new college built on the Cherwell flood plain with its entrance over a canal that Jacobson and his landscape artist wife created. "St Catz" cleverly rethinks the old university forms of quadrangle and cloisters. The dynamics are still very Oxbridge but the look is clean and functionalist. Jacobson, a Scandinavian, also designed the light-fittings, chairs, plugs and cutlery. It ought to be called Ikea College, really.

There's Wolfson, too, the latest purpose-built college to be added to the university. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin Wolfson was its first president and he instructed the architects to do away with the notion of a high table or a central quadrangle.

Hang on - you're talking 1960s and 1970s. What about now?

There are plenty of more recent buildings but those were the last new colleges. The Said Business School, for example, was completed in 2001. Never mind the controversy surrounding its construction (the donor was considered unsuitable in some university circles and a Grade I-listed railway building from 1851 was demolished in the process); it is a fine piece of work with a distinctive gopuram (pyramidal) tower and a huge canopy that has brightened up the scruffy approaches to Oxford railway station.

Some great buildings come from the 1990s, too. The Garden Quad at St John's College, by MacCormac, Jamieson & Prichard, has been hailed as one of the most definitive buildings of Nineties Britain. You won't find anything quite like this in your average British city - a terraced podium with light wells down to the auditorium below and lots of little towers, each with its own sequence of rooms. It's probably the most original piece of university architecture since some medieval monk invented the quadrangle.

OK, but you've got to admit there's a lot of pseudo stuff, too.

Modern Oxford does have its fair share of pastiche but you have to give architects some latitude. No one wants to do what the departments of physics and engineering did on Parks Road - spurn 700 years of architectural context. A new building has to fit in as well as make its own statement. The big difference is between something like the new Sackler Library, attached to the Ashmolean (by Robert Adam), which reworks the style and dimensions of a Doric temple, and the new Grove Buildings at Magdalen College (by Demetri Porphyrios), which rework every style under the sun - Greek, Roman, Norman, Gothic - to provide a dubious heritage soup. Magdalen even bunged a pseudo-medieval statue into a niche on the north wall overlooking Longwall Street. Grove Buildings will either spawn a whole new style of their own - "Oxford Rampant Eclectic" - or go down as a complete failure of nerve on the college's part.

What about Norman Foster? He's always good value.

Sadly, the only Foster & Partners is the Economics Faculty on Manor Road. Built in 2000, it does do some interesting things with tilt-and-turn windows but is otherwise bland. The Rothermere American Institute on South Parks Road is much more fun. Architects Khon Pederson Fox have constructed two storeys of study booths here that look out over an atrium and clerestory in glass and steel.

And what of the city itself?

In terms of what is "town" rather than "gown", an interesting new ice rink on Thames Street (by Grimshaw) is suspended from two huge masts. It's a hi-tech solution to a structural problem, with the foundations quite dashing in its own, ocean-going way. And the new Gloucester Green market square and bus station (by Kendrick) could be a lot worse. Using a pseudo-Edwardian office block to screen the station from Worcester Street, the architects have created two large linked piazzas decorated with towers, balconies and a variety of roof styles. It's eclectic but provides a suitably vernacular backdrop to the busy world of street vendors and backpackers below.

OK, you've convinced me. So how do I get there?

National Express (0121-625 1122; www.gobycoach.co.uk) travels to Oxford from a variety of locations across the UK. If you must drive, do leave your car at one of the five park-and-ride car parks that circle the city. Oxford is proud of its reputation as the city of screaming tyres. Cars are ferociously ticketed, clamped and impounded by legions of fanatical traffic wardens. I guess they just want to make sure you can see the architecture properly. Double rooms at The Old Bank Hotel, 92-94 High Street, Oxford (01865 799599; www.oxford/hotels/restaurants. co.uk) start from £140 per room per night, including breakfast.

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