St Catherine’s College was built in 1962 by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. His vision was to build an entirely modern solution to the challenge of creating an integrated environment which would be both practical and aesthetically pleasing, whilst still reflecting the elements of a traditional Oxford college. Jacobsen’s designs went further than just the fabric of the buildings, with cutlery, furniture and lampshades being of his own idiosyncratic design.
The result was a rectangular quadrangle at the heart of the college surrounded by buildings in glass and concrete, which married modern materials with a more traditional layout. Its sides are formed by student rooms built in the conventional Oxford ‘staircase’ format, whilst its ends consist of the Dining Hall and Library.
Unlike most quads, however, St Catherine’s is not closed off. Instead, hedge-lined walks lead to other buildings, and to garden areas which are planted with a fascinating variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. The whole West side is flanked by the river Cherwell, and on the East side by Merton College’s playing fields, which themselves border the University Parks, giving St Catherine’s an apparently rural setting which is yet only minutes away from the centre of Oxford.
Jacobsen considered the garden as an integral part of his design. As such it is now a Registered Garden to accompany the Grade 1 Listing of the buildings (1994). The skeleton of Arne Jacobsen’s original garden design is largely unaltered. It is dictated by the three metre grid which unifies the entire site, and is set out as a series of spaces or rooms defined by yew hedges, brick walls and covered walk ways which connect the strong lines of the buildings. Unlike historic buildings, however, a garden cannot be conserved in every aspect; it must undergo constant change under the influence of the weather, the health and longevity of individual plants, new botanic introductions and (not least) the sensibility of those who care for it.
Many of the original trees and shrubs have had to be replaced, and there have been significant changes to the entrance and in the form of the new buildings at the north end of the College. Some of the Jacobsen courtyards and the configuration of and balance between grass and paving have also undergone evolutionary rearrangements over the years. The garden’s abiding strengths are in its architectural qualities set against simple plantings of carefully chosen trees and shrubs. It is planned to be at its best in June and October to coincide with the climacterics of the academic year.
The College’s policy has been to work with the language of Jacobsen’s design, but to complement its classical austerities with a softer and more ‘romantic’ English style which has become more obvious as the trees and shrubs have matured. However, the garden retains the strong personal imprint of its designer, particularly in the carefully thought through physical linking of built forms with garden spaces.