Among the Spires- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Oxford is a "baffling jumble of structures . . . with no obvious center to them," says the author. (Rob Matheson/Corbis)

Among the Spires

Between medieval and modern, Oxford seeks equilibrium

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(Continued from page 1)

Between the two world wars, Oxford's architecture was largely stagnant, and almost the only beautiful contemporary structure was a little footbridge over the river Cherwell. A spirit of change was signaled in 1959 when Danish architect Arne Jacobson was commissioned to design the new college of St. Catherine's, on the outskirts of the medieval center among the water-meadows to the east. He did the whole thing from scratch, from pepper shakers to bicycle racks, in purest Scandinavian Modern, the dominant style of the day.

This was bold and exciting, but not very Oxford—it lacked the requisite elements of humor and intricacy. Fortunately for my instincts, though, over the years since then the university and its colleges have been developed in a more properly muddled manner. This has been dictated, of course, not by ethos but by the exigencies of finance, planning restrictions and social progress. A sprawling new science area appeared. A particle accelerator building arose above the topsy-turvy rooftops. Where there was once an old electrical power station, there is now a laboratory housing several wind tunnels. Another brand-new college, all glass and pebble dash, arose beside the Cherwell north of the old center. A big new law library materialized on one flank of the city; on the other flank, by the railway station, a Syrian-born multimillionaire sponsored the Said Business College, with a tower like a ziggurat.

Sidling in among the labyrinthine purlieus of the colleges too, sundry lesser new constructions gently remind us now that, despite its reputation, nothing in Oxford really stays the same. Squeezed between quadrangles may be a concrete dormitory, half-hidden behind a Georgian block, a modernistic new library. Put together all the buildings of Oxford that have been added during the past few decades and you would have an elegant new university of its own, complete with all faculties.

And through it all swarms a multitudinous cross section of contemporary humanity. Some 40,000 students are at large at Oxford, if it is term time, half of them from the university itself, half from the assorted educational establishments that flourish in its shadow. Another 149,000 townspeople jam the brassy shopping malls of the commercial center, and what seem to be a thousand buses from a hundred different companies parade the noble High Street. Some innocent visitors, expecting an idyllic haven of youth and contemplation, take one look at the city center and drive hastily away. Matthew Arnold called Oxford a sweet city of dreaming spires. No longer: it is a maelstrom of varied energies, the very antithesis of tradition's ivory tower.

But so it should be, to my mind, if a university is to reflect the full range of human energy—to be, for better and for worse, a microcosm of its culture. And at the heart of it all anyway, invested by suburbs and industrial quarters, Universitas Oxoniensis pursues as always its majestically ambiguous and perhaps unconscious purpose—to remain its esoteric self but to be a vital part of the great world too.

The head of one of the greatest colleges admitted to me recently that the world had defeated him, and he could no longer cope with the relentless criteria of a modern university. It was the dreaming spires for him, and he presently retreated into a gentler field of scholarship. In a harshly competitive age, Oxford has to sell itself, and shiny indeed are the brochures, lavish the functions, flattering the honorary degrees and fellowships, endless the hospitality of such college heads, by which it solicits the means for its survival.

But survive it does. This truly remarkable engine of contemporary intellect is still able, after roughly 900 years, to attract scholars of rare distinction, students of grand promise, from the four corners of the world. A third of the University of Oxford's students, in the year 2007, come from abroad, representing 139 different countries: and there are still sufficient men and women of genius who are so attuned to the particular mores of this strange place that all the gold of the Indies cannot lure them elsewhere.

How does it work? God knows. The University of Oxford is such a tangle of discrete influences and loyalties, so loaded with separate authorities, so littered with boards and customs and councils and faculties and electors and visitors and trustees that picking one's way through it is like exploring a labyrinth. But work it does, and I like to think that its particular combination of the radical and the nostalgic, the dogmatic and the ecumenical, the ironic and the opportunist, the earnestly sensible and the antic illogical is what gives the place not only its ethos but its resilience.

Think of this. The most distinguished graduate college at Oxford is All Souls, founded in 1438 and popularly alleged to number among its Fellows the cleverest men and women in England. Once in every hundred years this eminent company celebrates something called the ceremony of the mallard, when it commemorates the fable of a wild duck supposed to have flown out of the foundations when the college was being built. After a good and vinous dinner those academics perambulate the premises looking for the shade of that bird, carrying sticks and staves, led by a Lord Mallard in a sedan chair with a dead duck on a pole, climbing to the roof and singing a gibberish song—Ho, the blood of King Edward, by the blood of King Edward, it was a swapping, swapping mallard.

When in 2001 they celebrated the ceremony of the mallard for the umpteenth time, they printed a booklet about the occasion. On its cover they quoted a contemporary commentator (me, as it happened!) to the effect that no event in Europe could be sillier, "not the most footling country frolic or pointless Anatolian orgy."

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