And so to Oxford.
Oxford is in parts magnificently pretty. There really are some masterpieces of gothic and medieval architecture. Who can resist the Radcliffe Camera? Or the aristocracy of Christ Church, whilst picturing an Aloysius-clutching Sebastian Flyte mincing amongst the cloisters? Or catching a glimpse of All Souls quad?
But... Oxford city centre is very compact, and as a result there aren't really any old quarters like you might find in other historic cities. Due to this fact, the 1960s and 1970s saw ugly buildings spring up wherever there was space, disregarding the sensibilities of the structures which might neighbour them. In truth, these newer buildings are no worse than you'd find in any other city centre in the UK, but it's the blatant disregard of the juxtaposition with the older buildings that makes them seem like such eyesores. But the town planners alone can't be blamed: the University is not always the city's saving grace. Take a walk up to what is known as 'the science area', and you soon find yourself faced with the towering blocks of concrete shame.
There are two particular areas which I find most disappointing. The first to logically mention is the area by the train station. This is the gateway to Oxford, and for many of the thousands of tourists who flock here each year is the first glimpse* they gain of this famous city. Being some way from the city centre**, you have to strain to even see a single spire as your train pulls in, and once you disembark the area surrounding the railway station does little to even hint at
– let alone complement – the architecture found elsewhere in the city. It's a very barren welcome, and you really could be anywhere. It feels like a chance missed.
My second gripe is a part of central Oxford I find particularly loathsome. Cornmarket has the mantle of main shopping strip, comfortably out high streeting the High Street. And it is a duty it has undertaken with the minimum effort on expending any attempt at cultivating character. The uniformity of the shops is to be expected, and as such isn't one of my gripes: I accept that economics has determined that people seemingly want seven different mobile phone shops within 100m of one another, five competing places to buy the latest Manchester United replica strip, and that French exchange students require a McDonald's to cluster outside. And besides, the actual High Street does offer some unique one outlet enterprises. But the feel of Cornmarket Street is very stale, even as British high streets go: no sooner have you left Carfax behind you and once again – like the train station before it – you really could be anywhere, a staid strip of mundanity with only the postcards on sale offering snatches of the architectural treasures that lie a few feet behind the Starbucks and KFCs. In this city, of all cities, how has the design managed to be quite so uninspired?
The recently build college I was staying in perched just on the periphery of the town centre, and whilst there was something slightly alluring about its design, I discovered listed status does not necessarily translate to something being overly functional. Consider my room.
"Wouldn't it be radical," some award winning architect probably gleefully thought, "if the entire outer facing wall of each room was a window? Think of the light it would let it. And, you know, it would really mess with people's preconceptions as to what a room should be like. Also, to cut down on clutter, I will put the blinds for each window inside the panes of glass. Groovy."
And yes, there is a lot of light. Especially at sunrise as you are trying to sleep. And especially because as the blinds are inside the glass it is impossible to have your window open and the blinds drawn simultaneously, meaning that attempting to sleep on a simmering hot summer night automatically equates to having your blinds open ready for the sun's rays to envelope your room as dawn breaks. Close your window and seal the blinds and you get a greenhouse effect going pretty quickly. I couldn't help but wonder if the rooms got this hot in the summer having one entire wall made of glass, does it get equally cold in the winter?
There is also the rather obvious problem of feeling like you are in a goldfish bowl, especially thanks to the aforementioned quirk of having to have your blinds open unless you wish to suffocate. After three days I had had enough and also my fair share of wondering if that passer by had got an eyeful of me in early stages of dress: how do people cope with this for a year?!
Many cities claim to be "a city of contrasts", and it's a claim Oxford can rightly make; contrast the disappointment of post 1940s Oxford with the awe inspired by much of what came before it. There seems to be an endemic school of thought amongst those designing Oxford's newer buildings that the past need not be revered, deference to what has gone before is merely backwards thinking, that new styles and ideas must be forged. Fair enough perhaps, but personally I hope they get over it soon because quite frankly parts of the city currently just look really crap.
*Especially thanks to what must be one of the most draconian park and ride schemes in the UK. But the city needs it! The compressed nature of the city together with winding roads and a wealth of largely pedestrianised areas means the city can still manage to feel fairly car heavy. And with a multitude of tour buses of a sort which belch out hot black fumes, on a hot day the centre still feels polluted.
**That said, it's still more central than Cambridge's train station, said to have been built some distance from the town centre at the insistence of the University, concerned that undergraduates would find the lure of easy access to the bright lights and prostitutes of London too hard to resist.