The Corpus Estate

THE CORPUS ESTATE – Elements of the History.
(Extracts from the Alan Baxter Associates Heritage Statement, January 2014)
Corpus Christi College was founded in 1517 by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester. Rather than the institution for the education of monks he first intended, Fox’s college quickly became a leading institution for humanist education in the University. Corpus Christi College is the twelfth oldest of Oxford’s 38 Colleges, and the third to be founded by a Bishop of Winchester. It is ‘small’, coming 34th in student size (28th in undergraduate size) but ranks highly in overall wealth. The college has a long tradition of excellence in classical studies and stands in the heart of the historic University zone in the Central Oxford Conservation Area, amongst an extensive group of Listed Buildings and Registered Gardens. It is adjacent to the open countryside of Christ Church Meadow, which its garden overlooks, as it does the Cathedral. The principal buildings of the college (many of them Grade I listed) stand on its historic site on the south side of Merton Street, with an Annexe site across the road on the corner of Magpie Lane.

Medieval and early modern Oxford had a multiplicity of academic foundations: outside the major colleges, most junior students were housed in residential halls, of which there were around 150. Some of these were eventually dissolved, others became endowed as full colleges themselves, while some were absorbed by grander college foundations. Between them were nestled private residences, taverns, and smaller tenements. Throughout Oxford, the archaeology of the medieval halls and tenements lies beneath college buildings constructed without investigative excavation.

The westernmost plot of the block between today’s Kybald Street and Merton Street was occupied through much of the Middle Ages by the private hall of residence, St John’s Hall. Adjacent to St Johns Hall east along Merton Street, Gilbert de Biham’s hall, or Beam Hall, occupied two plots in the same period. St John’s and Beam Halls were acquired by the College from the Crown following the dissolution of the monasteries. Other medieval or early modern College-owned buildings on the south side of Kybald Street survived into the twentieth century: on the corner with Magpie Lane, a gabled four-bay stone building with garages or stables on the street and rooms above, mostly known as Jesus Hall, and beside it to the east, a house of about 1600 known as Kybald Twychen. Parts of these buildings were used as the Black Lion pub in the nineteenth century.

Historic maps show some continuity in the arrangement of buildings on the site since the sixteenth century. John Agas’ 1578 map of Oxford shows the St John’s Hall site occupied by three buildings: one aligned along Merton Street, another at right-angles facing Magpie Lane, and a third on the corner of Magpie Lane and Kybald Street. In later maps, the site appears more densely filled. The identity of lost properties is difficult to establish today, but between those used by the colleges, there were private tenants, pubs and other properties. At the corner of Magpie Lane and Merton Street, three ramshackle buildings stood into the nineteenth century, owned by Corpus Christi College but let also to servants of Corpus Christi and students of other nearby colleges. They were evocatively known as ‘the Pit’, and during the late nineteenth century incorporated the George & Dragon pub. Shortly after a survey of 1839, Corpus Christi replaced its properties on Magpie Lane north of the Pit with a terrace of four- storey stuccoed townhouses, much like those which stand today at 6-9 Magpie Lane.

T.G. Jackson (1835-1924)
Thomas Graham Jackson was born into a solicitor’s family in Hampstead in 1835. He matriculated at Corpus Christi College in 1854, but graduated in Literae Humaniores with a scholarship from Wadham College, where he became a fellow in 1863. From 1858 Jackson worked for George Gilbert Scott, and trained as an architect in the conventional Gothic style of the age championed by John Ruskin. Jackson was noted for his draughtsmanship. Having fallen out with his mentor, he left Scott’s office to set up as a private architect in London in 1862; leaving Scott may have in influenced Jackson to move away from the highest Gothic of the mid-nineteenth century.

Oxford University had for centuries awarded degrees through a system based on study and oral examination, but by the 1840s a reforming movement pushed Oxford and Cambridge away from informal fellowship and study, towards a greater emphasis on formalised undergraduate teaching. A Royal Commission appointed in 1850 was seen to push for a more rigorous written examination system and greater provision for poor students. Its recommendations were taken up with enthusiasm by a generation of reformers who proposed an Examination Schools building owned by the University and large enough for a growing body of undergraduates. An informal competition in 1876, with young architects such as Basil Champneys and members of the architectural old guard such as T.N. Deane and William Butterfield, saw Jackson win the commission – his first large building – with a radical Renaissance-inspired design. Every other entry was pure Gothic. The Examination Schools marked a turning point for Oxford’s architecture and its academic community. It also launched Jackson’s career. His post-Gothic mixed Italianate elements and English Renaissance detailing with a free-handedness which became the mark of his ‘Anglo-Jackson’ style.

Oxford’s reformers were gaining prominence in the 1870s. Comforted by Jackson’s avowed sympathy with their aims as a fellow of Wadham, and admiring his radical combination of styles into such grand and popular buildings as the Schools, they commissioned Jackson repeatedly through the 1880s and 90s. In his 2009 monograph, Oxford Jackson, William Whyte said they chose him “to symbolize their success and express their identity,” enamoured of his “ability to express their ideals in his buildings”.

After four decades of further commissions, the University magazine attributed to him a greater impact on Oxford’s architecture than anyone since Wren. His work was mainly educational, but ranged beyond Oxford. His practice ran alongside his scholarly work, which evolved from the 1873 Modern Gothic Architecture through a series of architectural histories and wider recollections on the discipline. He was elected RA in 1896, received honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge in 1910 and 1911, and was awarded the RIBA gold medal in 1910. After collaborating on the underpinning of Winchester Cathedral with Sir Francis Fox, Jackson received a baronetcy – unprecedented for an architect – in 1913. He died in 1924.
Academic reformers at Oxford University in the circle of the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, were gaining power at the colleges in the years after the erection of T.G. Jackson’s Examination Schools. Under their progressive influence, college estates built new residential provision for rising numbers of poor or middle-class undergraduates.

In 1881, under its new reformist President, Thomas Fowler, Corpus Christi College began to consider a redevelopment of its cluster of buildings on the site around Jesus Hall on the corner of Magpie Lane (then Grove Street) and Merton Street, to provide housing for additional undergraduates. In his previous position as Sub-Rector at Lincoln College, Fowler had ignored the Rector’s passivity to champion restoration work and new building, and commissioned Jackson to restore the windows and roof of the fifteenth-century hall, and construct an entirely new range of student sets in the Grove Building (1880-83).

Jackson’s building for Corpus Christi offered a fairly regular four bays to Merton Street, though they are not symmetrical, since the second bay from the west has aedicules at the first and second floors. In approach it reflects what Sir Nikolaus Pevsner summarised as Jackson’s typical “symmetrical free gothic” style with imaginative Jacobean additions, most recently and similarly used at Lincoln College’s Grove Building. But unlike the Lincoln building, where three staircases open traditionally onto a quad, at Corpus Christi one grand staircase gives access across the floors. Though the Merton Street façade is clearly its main elevation, the building was accessed from the rear, through a narrow connecting bay to the south of the early nineteenth-century terrace on Magpie Lane: a door gave access to a lobby in the terrace from the street, with a further door opening into the ground- floor corridor of the Jackson Building, adjacent to the shared bathroom. This arrangement, rather than the typical collegiate staircases, was appropriate for the domestic character of the site.

The Corpus Christi building’s circulation system was less the subject of Common Room resistance than its ornamented south façade. In form and scale though, it better echoes the four-gabled President’s Lodgings to its east than the irregular buildings of the Pit it replaced. The façade is still the building’s most contentious aspect, with Jackson’s detractors likely to dislike its decorativeness; for Pevsner, it is unmistakeably Jackson, “as the overcrowding of decoration, the bay-windows, the sudden two aedicules, show, i.e. the apparatus as well as the handling.” Jackson’s building is in the Clipsham stone which was gaining ground in the 1880s as the favoured stone for repairing and replacing the much degraded honey-coloured Headington stone of Oxford’s past. Confident of the stone’s ability to weather, Jackson created an elaborately ornamented façade, featuring aedicules, hood mouldings to the ground-floor arcade, relief panels in the oriel window aprons, and a date stone with a carved depiction of Corpus Christi’s pelican emblem. Jackson also designed the organ case in the ante-chapel on the main college site, and this is to be subject to work during the 2016 renovation.

Later use and alteration
The Jackson Building’s list description and Salter and Lobel record that the building was enlarged in 1927, but no record has been found of this enlargement, so its extent is unknown. Drawings deposited in the College archive that are undated, but are estimated to date from between the world wars, show plans to replace the two-light windows of the ground floor arcade on the south elevation with four lights.

The only major alterations made to the Jackson Building came with the construction of Powell & Moya’s building in 1969. The College’s brief then was to complete its complex of buildings between Merton Street and Kybald Street, and from the outset designs for the new addition included access from a rear courtyard. Once it was decided to retain the Jackson Building, new access arrangements entailed reorientation of the entrance to the site: the easternmost bay on the Merton Street elevation had its window demolished, with the matching bay to the rear removed, and, inside, a partition wall was removed to create an open-air covered walkway into a paved courtyard. Metal security gates were added to the Merton Street elevation. By making some new doorways, the central rooms on the ground floor were made into a caretaker’s flat.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the rooms on the ground floor have been used for administrative offices, rather than as lodgings. The former sets on the first and second floors were, in the later twentieth century, turned into separate study bedrooms with the reconfiguration of partition walls to create small lobbies around some of the doors. Shared bathrooms were also partitioned.

The Powell & Moya Building
In the first half of the twentieth century, government policy generally encouraged Britain’s universities to expand. However, Oxford and Cambridge’s city-centre colleges had restricted plots in which to grow. As private foundations, the colleges were further limited by planning restrictions in place since wartime, rationing of building materials, development charges introduced in 1947, and the national priority given to state housing projects. Oxford’s biggest building work until the 1950s was the University’s expansion of the science area in a conservative style along South Parks Road. There, in the mid-1950s, the first stirrings of a quiet Oxford modernism could be detected in work by Basil Ward, and notably at the new Dyson Perrins organic chemistry laboratories and extension.

Churchill’s government abolished development charges in 1954 and once rationing of materials was also lifted, new private building projects became possible. The young Howard Colvin had first connected the Oxford colleges with the work of cutting-edge practices, when in 1956, as a young don at St John’s College, he had overcome collegiate conservatism to win a commission for Michael Powers of the Architects’ Co-Partnership to build a new range of student sets in a quad there. Powers’ Beehive building was a great success, arranging hexagonal stacks to combine a radical plan-form with the traditional staircase system of an Oxbridge college. The scheme gave heart to Oxford’s proponents of the modern even before its completion in 1960.

The Corpus Christi commission
The 1963 Robbins Report on higher education gave a decisive push for the expansion of higher education provision in Britain. The next year, Corpus Christi began searching for an architect to extend the Jackson Building on the site of its fragmentary Magpie Lane holdings, Jesus Hall and the late Georgian terrace, with a much more capacious residence. Decision-making on the new commission was managed through the Buildings & Furniture Committee of the College by the President, philosopher W.F.R. Hardie, the Bursar, Brigadier Oscar Jameson, and Trevor Aston, a history fellow and the College librarian who had a special interest in design and the college estate.

Correspondence in the College archive reveals they first approached two modernist architects who had recently made a mark in Oxbridge: Philip Dowson, one of the leading architects in Ove Arup’s new architecture practice, who was just finishing a new building at the Leckhampton graduate campus of the College’s Cambridge namesake; and Michael Powers, the architect of the St John’s College Beehive building. Dowson’s initial sketches disappointed the fellows, and in a note to Aston, Hardie worried that Dowson’s conceptual scheme was “startlingly unlike the surrounding buildings”. Powers designed a scheme that connected with the rear elevation of 3 Merton Street, which Hardie judged “appeals more to the intelligence than to the eye”. Powell & Moya’s champion at Christ Church was the philosophy fellow, David Pears, who had been at Corpus Christi until 1959; it had been Pears who casually proposed the Corpus Christi job to Powell & Moya. However, the partners had thought it beyond their studio’s capacity at the time. With Aston’s first suggestions of Dowson and Powers a flop, he secured Hardie’s agreement to approach Powell & Moya again. From a first meeting with the fellows in July 1964, an outline scheme was born.

In January 1965, Powell & Moya offered two schemes to the College. Both had plan forms similar to the building that was eventually realised, over three storeys on a frame of load-bearing concrete walls; but one scheme offered 30 study-bedrooms and one fellow’s set between Jesus Hall and the Jackson Building, while the other offered 39 study-bedrooms and one fellow’s set at the expense of demolishing Jesus Hall, as well as a large basement garage and bicycle store. Demolition of the Jackson Building was also mooted, but the possibility was soon discarded. Opinion settled in favour of the larger scheme, sacrificing the garages and handful of bedrooms contained in Jesus Hall. Through discussions about the intersection of the new building with the first floor of Kybald Twychen, space for two additional study bedrooms was found, making a total of 41.

Understanding the Asset
A Preliminary Sketch Scheme was drawn up in July 1965, and in October 1965 a bursarial memo shows the College’s anxieties about the project included the privacy and use of Kybald Twychen, and the geometry of car parking, but chiefly the views down Magpie Lane and towards Merton Tower; Aston and Hardie had pursued Powell & Moya with the thought that they were “more likely to pursue a modest frontage”. Oxford City Council seem to have expressed early concerns about the height of the building too, and two aerial exteriors dated July 1965 and February 1966 show few differences to the elevations of Powell & Moya’s first scheme, with the most substantial revisions made at the roof level: a pitched-roof penthouse with an irregular outline was abandoned in favour of the rectangular and slab-roofed penthouse, with a small angled water tank, that was eventually built. One other obvious modification made between these schemes abandoned small windows into the kitchens of the central blank wall section of the Magpie Lane façade, and the corresponding internal rearrangement of the shared pantry kitchens away from the west wall, with services and ducts inserted in-between.

With eventual approval from the College, the revised design became a Detailed Sketch Scheme in April 1966, which in its depictions of the exteriors is substantially similar to the eventual construction. Discussions with the College at this stage focused on the detailed designs for study-bedroom interiors, heating, joinery, lighting and the roof balustrade. Oxford City Council granted permission on 21 May 1966, but, having been mainly concerned about the height of the building, objected to glazed roof balustrading. Powell & Moya proposed a satisfactory railed alternative. In an article in the Oxford Mail on 15 June 1967, Aston and the architects defended the roof line arrangement which would “not block views of Merton Tower”, and explained the building’s aim of maintaining the area’s “unity of domestic scale”.

The street elevations seem to have been well received from the first concept. Unlike their three previous Oxford buildings, which had used smooth and newly-cut Portland stone, Powell & Moya clad their reinforced-concrete frame for the PMB with rough rubble-cut Jurassic limestone, described in the Oxford Mail article as aiming to harmonise with Kybald Twychen and the Oriel College wall across Magpie Lane. This is similar to that found in the low-lying hills nearest Oxford, and used in much of its oldest Saxon and Medieval architecture, such as the towers of St Martin’s church at Carfax and St Michael’s on Cornmarket.

Construction and alteration
Photographs in the James Thomas Collection depict the building under construction, to timetable, between 1967 and early 1969. Small alterations to the building have been made since 1969. Lighter woodwork on some parts of the glazing to the rear elevation of the main stairwell indicate areas that were enclosed in the 1970s, the ground-floor level of the main stairwell having been open to the air at first. Some time after the internal plans were drawn up for the PMB, a staff -room and workshops were inserted across the north of the basement, taking up two parking bays. In the 1980s, a breeze-block partition wall was built across the north of the cycle store area with the purpose of extending the adjacent workshop and maintenance space in the northern part of the basement. The glazed circular roof lights from the cycle store in the basement into the courtyard were filled at around the same time.

Brian Harrison’s 1994 collection of the memories of twentieth-century alumni (Corpuscles) contains some evidence of the use of the Jackson Building and the PMB. Into the 1980s, the combined buildings seem mainly to have housed arriving first-years. Some alumni have recalled the way the buildings, set apart from the main college, quickly fostered a sense of community amongst freshers. Fellows and staff of the college have had reservations about the use of the PMB and Jackson Building. In the late 1980s, the Junior Common Room contested the Fellows’ decision to relocate freshers from the PMB to other premises because of concern about noise levels and the Dean’s wish to “radically de-ghettoize” it, according to the memoirs collected by Harrison.