A lament for lost Oxford

Baroness Deech

This post is not strictly to do with life in the House of Lords, but readers may draw their own conclusions about planning law, the drive for retail growth, and the expansion of the numbers of students (not an unmitigated blessing) who need affordable housing at the university. port-meadow-_610The building of large blocks of graduate flats overlooking the open grazing land of Port Meadow caused great controversy and differences between Oxford University staff and citizens, while the students were largely in favour because they need the housing. Oxford was once regarded as the city of dreaming spires, and the home of lost causes: now very much the latter rather than the former. It is also sadly a place where many appalling abuses of young girls by gangs have occurred. I have lived there for more than 40 years and, much as I love it, I cannot admire it any more as a beautiful place, at least not in the public domain. The interior of most colleges, especially the older ones, remains unspoiled and inspiring.

Cornmarket st 2

But this is our main shopping street with the usual shops, and teenage tourists who tend to cluster round McDonalds at Carfax. The seating in the street is inverted stainless steel, twestgate[1]o ensure that it is neither vandalised nor occupied for too long. The city council is not content with the retail outlets that we have, for example the Westgate Centre, so it is being greatly extended, and may well draw into the extension some of the existing shops in the city centre.


The city is undertaking all its roadworks at once with predictable chaos. At the station it is making the changes that were obviously desirable ten years ago, and making very heavy weather of them too. The main road into the city centre from the west is snarled up with new discount stores, and the two northern entries to the city are both being torn up at the moment.

Maybe worst of all to some tastes are the latest additions to the university and college buildings. While the extended Ashmolean Museum and the Weston Library are outstanding successful and fit perfectly within their settings and their older incarnations, here are some that stand out like sore thumbs, (the Blavatnik building, the Investcorp building and the redeveloped Radcliffe Infirmary site), modern chunks, blocks and tubes plonked down in small scale Jericho and graceful N. Oxford. I am well aware of the challenges facing less wealthy colleges in designing and funding new buildings and managing the influence of donors who want a statement building.

blavatnik5St Antonys investcorpradcliffe infirmary site

RandolphGiven that there was a dreadful fire at the iconic Randolph Hotel earlier this year, one might echo the Queen and say it has been an annus horribilis for this former architectural gem of a city.

5 comments for “A lament for lost Oxford

  1. 04/08/2015 at 7:52 pm

    I quite agree, I live only a short distance from Oxford yet never go there. If you aren’t at the university, it isn’t a pleasant place to go. Full of the two groups of people I least want to be around: tourists and students!

  2. tizres
    04/08/2015 at 10:22 pm

    While Oxford is a natural host for architectural innovation, including Marmite architects such as Hadid and, er, Butterfield, the line was crossed back in the 1980’s with the original development of the Clarendon Centre; then, blue plastic tubing was all the rage. Literally. God knows how my heart fluttered for a second or two when, on checking the Randolph fire story you mentioned, discovered that the hotel was part of the Macdonald Group (the spelling kicked in moments later).

    Yet developments in the 1980’s, such as Gloucester Green, saved the Town from, quite frankly, a seedy death. Oxford has always been nuts.

  3. MilesJSD
    05/08/2015 at 12:22 pm

    What a lovely description of Oxford ;
    your photographs are a completely successful innovation for the LOTB;
    many congratulations, noble baroness Deech;

    and the two commenters so far are further insightfully descriptive.
    When recently “Oxford” [universities] became your Westminster Governances’ “Mindfulness” leader/teacher/tutor/guide/knowledge-&-know-how source,
    I very nearly declared myself a “Dissenter” –
    on account of “Mindfulness” being “‘foxily’* symbioticly rooted via a psyvhiatric therapy [CBT] in still-unconscious’d but increasingly essential Virtual Foundation Faculty of “Somatics”**;
    and one saw the playwording “oxfordmorons” re-looming across one’s mind.
    * the “Relationship & Needs” fivefold Tortoise, Shark, Fox, Teddy-bear, and Owl.
    ** To grasp the new-senses and meanings in Somatics one needs to acquire such publications as “Somatics” or better still “The Body of Life” by Thomas Hanna; “Effort” by Laban & Lawrence;’; “Waking Up” Littlewood & Roche transcripts of the educational work of Charlotte Selver.
    Considering that all universities need ultimately, and arguably urgently, to constitute Somatics as a basic and mandatory faculty,
    even if only requiring an entrance level “pass” [possibly only GCSE level in Somatics knowledge & know-how would suffice ];

    and that Oxford’s ‘indigenous’ non-academic population appears to be mature and reasonably ‘holisticly aware’ ,
    and maybe is already sustainworthy lifestyling too;

    and that from the photographs shown so far Oxford is an ongoing beautifully civilising area;

    all of that could quickly resolve Oxford into advancing as a world-leading, ‘No Lose’, longest-term strategic, sustainworthy-civilisation exemplary Place;
    So I think “Oxford’s future” should be followed up, and serially publicly so.

  4. maude elwes
    05/08/2015 at 3:30 pm

    You have to face facts, Baroness, Oxford has been on a downward spiral for some long time. And with the lowering need for intellectual ability, can and will only get worse.

    Those who fill our planning offices with a desire to reduce our architectural heritage with nothing but unkempt ugliness, in order to seek revenge on our collective heritage, will not be satisfied until nothing is left of the beauty, we as a nation, once aspired to. And had the knowledge to produce.

    In fact, I think you have to go as far back as the 20’s to find a mindset that appreciated historical excellence in the real sense of it. Ugly on every level being flavour of the month presently.


    And of course those odd people you meet.


  5. Stanner
    28/08/2015 at 12:08 am

    Thoughts on the new St. Anne’s building work?

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