Students have now spent a week in St Catherine’s College, and have become accustomed to its towering windows, perfect right-angles, and highly stylish chairs (more on those later). To be in St Catherine’s College is to recognise that it is special ―and very different from most other colleges in Oxford. But many, whilst noting its difference and modernity, do not know the full history of how it came into being
Catz was founded in 1962, to formalise the Delegacy of Non-collegiate Students ―its ethos was and remains a modern one: to provide all the best bits of an Oxford education with none of the stuffy fussiness. This is encapsulated in its motto, “nova et vetera” (“the new and the old”). It is also represented in the choice of architect for the project of housing these modern ideals.
Arne Jacobsen was already a prominent architect in Denmark by the time he was called upon to design St Catz. Having achieved national recognition at age 27 for his ‘House of the Future’, in collaboration with Flemming Lassen, Jacobsen moved on to several large commissions: municipal buildings, such as the Århus City Hall and the Rødovre Town Hall; and buildings for educational institutions, most notably the Munkegård School in Gentofte, near Copenhagen. And so it went that in 1960, a group of Oxford dons intent on founding a college of exacting principles, travelled to Denmark in search of an architect who could do the same for its dimensions, and offered Jacobsen the job.
Jacobsen’s approach to St Catherine’s was one of ‘total design’: every last detail was considered, right down to the species of fish in the perpendicular ponds, the silverware, china, lamps, doorhandles, and the chairs ―and oh my, what chairs. Jacobsen designed high-backed chairs to suit the high ceilings of the dining hall, ‘pot’ chairs for the conference rooms, and easy chairs with frames of laminated wood for the student bedrooms. His design is no doubt divisive (St Catz has both been called “a perfect piece of architecture” and likened to a “borstal”), but we at ORA have seen how its light rooms with their clean lines and sleek chairs inspire the learners within them to new, great thoughts and strong, deep friendships.