The first mention of Oxford was in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 912. Due to its location on the River Thames, it became a channel enabling the exchange of goods and people between the Midlands and the south of England.
It was an important economic and military center that contributed to the growth of the city even before the creation of the University in the 12th century. The city was designed around 2 main axes called Carfax – ‘Four Ways’. To this day they are considered to be the center of the city on the junction between Cornmarket Street to the north, St Aldate’s to the south, Queen Street to the west, and the High Street to the east.
Two of the oldest remaining pieces of medieval Oxford are St George’s Tower and the Saxon tower of St Michael. They were both erected in the early 11th century and remind us of the military prominence of the city. The first one was the part of the Oxford castle, most of which was destroyed and rebuilt somewhere in-between the 12th and 13th centuries and then destroyed again in the English Civil War. These days we can admire the remaining buildings which became a prison complex in the 18th century, and then were again redeveloped in 1996 as a hotel and attraction for tourists. The Saxon tower is now a part of the oldest church in Oxford – St Michael at the North Gate, which was constructed out of Coralline Oolite Formation – an Upper Jurassic limestone formation. It became a ceremonial church of Oxford in 1971 and to this day on Ascension Day, marking of the parish’s boundary can be experienced.
Some of the most important architectural heritage in the city is located within the University of Oxford. The system of self-governing thirty-nine colleges was created due to the continuous agglomeration of many autonomous institutions since the Middle Ages. It is possible to see the journey through the history of architectural trends just by looking at the development of various colleges in the city. Three of the oldest colleges are: University, Balliol and Merton. All of them were founded in the 13th century and expanded by acquiring new land and buildings. Nevertheless, it is the New College that became the first example of the quadrangle organization of its key facilities: sleeping rooms, Library, Hall, and Chapel and presents one of its kind Medieval architecture in English Perpendicular Gothic style.
Church of St Mary the Virgin is located in the center of all the college buildings. It was established in Anglo-Saxon times. Its baroque porch, created by Nicholas Stone, a 13th-century tower and a spire decorated with pinnacles, gargoyles, and statues, makes it one of the most important landmarks in Oxford.
The Queen’s College, founded in 1341, is distinguished by being designed mainly in neoclassical style by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Its front quad, built in the 18th century, has an entrance on the High Street – above which a sculpture by Henry Cheeree of Caroline Ansbach is presented. Erected in the same century, the Neoclassical style can also be found in Oxford in the design of Radcliffe Camera by James Gibbs. It is the example of the earliest circular library in England and today it functions mainly as reading rooms whilst being connected with an underground tunnel to the Bodleian Library. The building was created using ashlar faced stone from Headington and Burford and has a central atrium space under the dome with the gallery on the first floor.
Further noteworthy buildings designed in the 19th century in neo-gothic style are Keble College and Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The first one was founded in 1870 and is distinguishable for William Butterfield’s use of red-brick. The architect also changed the arrangement of the living quarters to follow the corridors instead of staircases. The University Museum was established in 1850, designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward, strongly influenced by the leading art critic John Ruskin. The main court is divided into three aisles and its square court is covered with a glass roof and constructed with cast-iron pillars. A variety of British stones, chosen by the geologist John Phillips, were used to create internal columns and their ornamentation was inspired by natural forms.
The 20th-century architecture is also very prominent in Oxford. St Catherine’s College is one of the youngest colleges, opened in 1962. Its glass and concrete facade and functionalist design by Arne Jacobsen differentiates it while keeping the traditional quadrangle layout. In 1993 the building received a Grade I listing and officially became part of England’s heritage. In 1968 the work commenced on the Florey Building, which is a modernist Grade II listed student accommodation designed by James Stirling. Its horseshoe shape, irregular concrete frames, red ceramic cladding, and floor-to-ceiling glazing that faces the courtyard distinguish it as strongly influenced by the modernist Bauhaus movement.
The history of Oxford is one of the richest in England and led to the creation of a city that is a center of global education with a variety of architectural styles and cultures. It became a cosmopolitan town with a strong historical presence and vibrant student environment. Being there, surrounded by its medieval towers, neo-gothic facades and modernist student accommodations can give an ethereal sense of the passage of times and anticipation of what’s to come.