St Catherine's College – Oxford, England - Atlas Obscura

St Catherine's College

This slice of 1960s Danish modernism does not conform to the Oxford college stereotypes. 


The Motto of St Catherine’s College is “Nova et Vetera,” “The New and the Old” and this sums up the institution very well. As part of Oxford University, it is a constituent college of the oldest university in the English speaking world, but the buildings that make it up were built in the 1960s in a modernist style.

Despite being constructed in the latter half of the 20th century, the building follows many of the traditions of the city’s older colleges. The main part is arranged around a quadrangle with rooms accessed from staircases leading up from this central area. There is a large dining hall and even a bell tower, although its purpose may not be obvious from its simple concrete form.

The origins of St Catherine’s go back to 1868 as the Delegacy for Unattached Students, a body designed to make it possible for students from more humble backgrounds to attend the university. At that time, the cost of college membership was an obstacle for potential students from less wealthy families. By the 1930s, it had become St Catherine’s Society and was still serving a similar role. In 1956 it was decided that it should become a fully fledged residential college and a site was found at Holywell Great Meadow.

The Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen was chosen for the project. He specified everything down to the furniture, light fittings, and even cutlery to be used in the college. The layout followed the traditional shape of an Oxford college, but the materials and forms of the buildings were very much 1960s modernism. The only thing missing was a college chapel, with nearby St Cross Church filling that role.

The foundation stone was laid by the Queen in 1960, and in 1962 the college opened its doors to its first (all-male) students, although the buildings were not fully complete. In 1964, it had a ceremonial opening before confirming its forward-looking ethos by being one of the first colleges to admit both men and women in 1974.

The college is known affectionately as “Catz” and stands slightly outside the historic city center of Oxford. While that is busy with tourists wanting to see the famous old colleges, St Catherine’s offers a tranquil setting that proves that it is possible for each age to reinterpret the traditions of Oxford while remaining true to them.

Know Before You Go

The college is at the end of Manor Road. Unlike most other Oxford colleges which may charge for admission and have restricted visiting hours, it is generally possible to walk around the grounds and the quad at any time.

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