Monday, 16 October 2017

'These ruins are inhabited!’ Oxford’s endurance, decay and renewal

The Curiosity Carnival, a day-long research extravaganza run by Oxford University (and also involving researchers from Oxford Brookes) was held on Friday 29 September 2017. Across Oxford, there were live experiments, games, stalls, busking, debates, music, dance and guided tours looking at the city from various angles. The whole day was about taking research out into the public domain and engaging with people.

As part of the Curiosity Carnival, David Garrard, Senior Lecturer in Historic Conservation and leader of the MSc Historic Conservation at Oxford Brookes, led two guided tours around central Oxford. The tours looked at the phenomena of decay, persistence and renewal in the historic built environment and were based on his research on the philosophical basis for conservation and preservation. I went on the first of the tours and took a few photos (additional text by David Garrard). Click on the blue links for more information about the history of the sites we visited...

The start of the tour - outside the Museum of the History of Science

The Heads of the 'Emperors' outside the Sheldonian Theatre. Not as old as you think.

Look at them closely. They actually look quite cheeky and cartoon-like.
These versions (and the third set of heads) were made by the sculptor Michael Black and were completed in 1972They are often found to be adorned with various accessories
The present heads replaced an earlier set put up in 1868 to replace the 1660s originals.
Historic conservation is much concerned with authenticity and identity. But can a replica be authentic? Can a copy be identical with the original? Does it matter?

The Sheldonian Theatre itself was closed as the Oxford University 
graduation ceremonies were taking place inside. 

So we stood across the other side of Broad Street, outside the Weston Library
to discuss the history of the Sheldonian.

Built to Christopher Wren’s designs in 1664-9, the Sheldonian was originally (due to last-minute budget cuts) faced in poor-quality Headington freestone. This proved extremely vulnerable to the effects of weathering and pollution and by the 1900s the lavish Baroque exterior was blackened and crumbling to dustThe building was almost completely re-clad in new stone during the 1950s. The roof had already been wholly replaced a century earlier. Much of the timber interior has also been renewed. The Sheldonian recalls the so-called 'Ship of Theseus', replaced plank by plank until no part of the original fabric was left. Is it still the same object at the end as it was at the beginning? What do we mean by that phrase ‘the same’? 

...before heading off down Broad Street to see the Bridge of Sighs (Oxford version).

Which is over there... 

The Bridge of Sighs. Linking two parts of Hertford College. The bridge celebrated its centenary in 2014. Oxford’s bridge was based on the 17th-century Bridge of Sighs in Venice. There is also a similar bridge in CambridgeAnd what Cambridge has, Oxford has to have also.
Is this another of a copy, like the Emperors’ Heads? Or something different?

 David explains the history of Hertford College‘Hart Hall’ (a hall of residence, not a college) was founded here in 1282. It took the name ‘Herford College’ in 1740, but closed for lack of students in 1804. Another institution, ‘Magdalen Hall’, was transferred to the old Hertford buildings in 1818. Re-founded in 1874, it too re-branded itself as ‘Hertford College’. Most of its current buildings are from after this date. What is the relationship between these institutions? How old is Hertford College? 

This curious octagonal building, now part of Hertford, has its origins in a chapel set into one of medieval city gates. This the original 16th-century doorway. The rest of the building was changed beyond recognition over the ensuing centuries, when it was used as (among other things) a house, a cordwainer’s shop, a book bindery and a billiard hall. It was ‘restored’ to [what the architect thought might have been] its original appearance in the 1920s. Something old survives here. But what? 

More about the history of Hertford College.

Round the back of Hertford College and onto New College Lane.

Another enclosed bridge, this one built c.1600 to connect the Warden’s Lodge at New College with the guest lodgings and college barn across the street. During the Industrial Revolution many buildings in Oxford suffered from severe discolouration and decay. The burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, causes acid rain, which reacts with limestone to form a gypsum crustThis absorbs further pollution and may eventually crack and flake off, accelerating the deterioration of the stone behind. 

This side of the bridge, like the Sheldonian, has been re-faced to restore its original appearance. 

This building on New College Lane originally housed the college latrines.

St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall) – another Oxford University institution with a complex past. 
We went in to discover...

Part of the old city wallLike most medieval cities, central Oxford was originally encircled by a high stone wall with bastions (like the one shown here) and fortified gates. The remaining portions of the wall are mostly well hidden and not widely known, even to residents, but it would once have been a defining feature of Oxford life. What is its significance today?

We walked down Queen's Lane and crossed over the High Street to get a good look at...

…the Queens's College. More than any other institution, Queen’s shows Oxford’s talent for combining continuity with metamorphosis. Founded in 1340, its original buildings were completely torn down in the early 18th century to make way for the present front quadrangle – now widely regarded as one of the triumphs of English Baroque architecture. This could never happen today. If it still stood, the medieval quadrangle – which seemed a mere old-fashioned inconvenience in 1700 – would be a treasured and carefully preserved part of Oxford’s heritage. Nowadays we tend to preserve the things we value. But this may mean we don’t get other things we might come to value even more. Is this a good bargain?

Queen’s is home to some of the most beautiful bus stops in Oxford

The end of the tour. And a first hand introduction to Oxford's issue with buses.

Back across the High Street for the next tour.

For more information about the MSc Historic Conservation at Oxford Brookes, click here.

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