Polite and Charged with Wit: Campion Hall at Oxford

by Jan Maciag, appearing in Volume 10


he quadrangle elevation.Oxford is almost overendowed with great architecture. For centuries, great talent and great wealth have turned the university area of the city into an ensemble of exquisite charm and exuberance. Along every street and alley are buildings that, although ordinary for Oxford, would rank amongst the finest were they somewhere else. Architectural competition is intense and, historically, in Oxford, great English architects have embraced the challenge with considerable success.

But let us move away from the heart of the old Oxford University, south to the High Street and turn right to Carfax, the main crossroads to the Saxon settlement. Turning left down St. Aldate’s, we come to the magnificent quadrangle and Tom Tower of Christ Church College on the left. This is the largest college in Oxford and also home to England’s smallest cathedral. The college was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 but, following the turmoil of the English Reformation, was re-endowed by King Henry VIII in 1546. The Tom Tower, a magnificent structure designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is so named because it houses the 7-ton “Great Tom” bell plundered from nearby Osney Abbey.

But turn your back to Christ Church and cross the road into Brewer Street. Suddenly, you leave the monumental Oxford of Hawksmoor and Wren and enter what is little more than an urban lane. Brewer Street is lined with modestly articulated buildings of rubble stone, brick, and render. After about 200 feet you come to a low wall, followed by a curiously shaped corner building. It is rectangular at its base and carries the street line into the distance on an utterly flat, golden coloured, stone elevation. All the openings are cut into this elevational slab without cornice, decoration, or relief. Meanwhile, above, the upper portion is carved out into half an octagon, again without decoration beyond that of a band of flush ashlar which runs around the entire building. The half octagon is then surmounted by a steeply pitched tile roof and cross finial. This is Campion Hall, the only building in Oxford designed by the most outstanding English architect of the 20th century: Sir Edwin Lutyens.

In our age of architectural showmanship, it is hard to understand this modest building by a man who had just completed the construction of the glorious Viceroy’s House in New Delhi and was working on the vast new Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. What were the circumstances of this commission?

During the inter-war period the driving force behind the Society of Jesus and English Catholicism was Father Martin D’Arcy (1888 – 1976). It was the era portrayed by Evelyn Waugh (himself a pupil of D’Arcy) in his book Brideshead Revis-ited. D’Arcy was a man of society who knew everybody of importance. At that time, the Catholic community in England was, numerically, predominantly working class. There were important elements of the surviving Catholic aristocracy as well as a vibrant crop of convert intellectuals. Amongst these latter groups, it was thought important that Catholicism should re-establish itself, especially in important places like Oxford, partly by means of fine architecture.

Campion Hall is a Jesuit College, and the present build-ing replaced various temporary homes of the Society of Jesus in the city. Originally, however, the new college was to have been an enlargement of the existing Jesuit house in St. Giles, which D’Arcy commissioned a Birmingham architect to design. The resulting proposal was not thought to be satisfactory and D’Arcy sought another opinion. There are two versions of the circumstances surround-ing this consultation. He either approached the Royal Institute of British Architects or asked Frances Horner, an old friend and patron of Lutyens, for help. Which-ever story, or combination of stories, is accurate, he was soon with Edwin Lutyens, who famously described the proposal as “Queen Anne in front, Mary Anne behind” and suggested an alternative site in St. Aldate’s. Somewhat perturbed, D’Arcy asked Lutyens to recommend another architect, and Lutyens duly recommended himself! D’Arcy knew that Lutyens was accustomed to great civic buildings and luxurious private houses where financial constraints played only a minor part, and replied that Lutyens was “far too expensive.” Lutyens persisted and finally D’Arcy, somewhat reluctantly, accepted after coming to an agreement as to construction costs. Land in Brewer Street was bought in 1933, construction started in 1934 and the building was occupied shortly after, in 1936. Lutyens must have been aware that supplanting another architect was a serious professional offence. Nevertheless, he took the risk.

The quadrangle elevation. Photo by author

As D’Arcy’s attitude towards Lutyens demonstrates, architects often suffer a professional hiatus after the completion of an important and expensive civic project. They are often perceived as too famous and too expensive and the proposed work as unworthy. For Lutyens, the completion of his great work at New Delhi in 1931 coincided with the economic depression, uncertainty and chaos in his family life. He and his wife Emily had been to India in 1931 for the official opening of the Viceroy’s House. Lutyens had been working on that building since 1912 and on leaving kissed one of its walls. They sailed home to a period of personal emptiness and depression. Emily had left the Theosophical Society, the spiritual mainstay of much of her adult life. She was tormented by noises in her head and relied heavily on the company of her husband and her children, just as their problems mounted alarmingly.

But 1932 brought more difficulties. In the summer his brother Nigel died. In October his friend Herbert Jekyll also died. He saw the great gardener, patron, and collaborator Gertrude Jekyll for the last time at her husband’s funeral; she too would be dead within a few weeks. That year also saw him lose the commission to build the new building at the London University to Charles Holden, as well as see much of his work for the Grosvenor Estate dry up due to the recession. He commented, “I am depressed at yet another job stopped … so my income this year will be less than last year’s taxes.” He was forced to pay £5800 in taxes on his income from the work at New Delhi, but the vast expense of the meticulous detailing and poor investments meant that the Viceroy’s House lost money. He attended the official opening of the war memorials at Thiepval and Arras but complained, “the grave’s work is closed as with Delhi, Spain, America —all seem to be closed together … and what will the new era bring?” His relentless joking to hide his shyness, and perhaps the strain, was also giving him a reputation as a “sad comedian.”

Lutyens began to develop a role as the leading opponent of modernist architecture. In 1934 he was elected Master of the Art Workers’ Guild and, a little earlier in 1932, he had made a memorable speech to the Architectural Association:

“I crave for soft, thick, noiseless walls of hand-made brick and lime, the deep light reflecting reveals, the double doors, easy stairways and doorways never less than 1 foot 6 inches away from a corner.”

He was, to a large extent, occupied by design work for the new Roman Catholic Liverpool Cathedral, but he had arranged for the architectural fees of £30,000 to be paid only after his death. In the end, only £10,000 was ever paid. However, although he sympathised with the Liverpool Arch-bishop Downey’s politics (also predicting the fall of the Anglican Church through lack of discipline), he felt uncomfortable with working for the Catholic Church. He wrote to Emily, “It is rum that our only source of income will be from a faith that we neither hold nor have.” He also worked on a group of small projects, but when he met D’Arcy to discuss the new building for the Society of Jesus in Oxford, big projects were eluding him. He had a reputation for extravagance, expenditure, and childish pranks that would have put off most serious-minded academics, but D’Arcy had the courage to see his potential.

The site chosen for Campion Hall (named after the Jesuit English martyr and Oxford scholar St. Edmund Campion), situated on the narrow Brewer Street, across from Pembroke College Chapel, bounded on its south side by Rose Passage, was an elongated rectangle, in a ratio of about 1:2, oriented south to north on its long dimension. At the northwest corner of the site stood an old building called Micklem Hall, used by students of Christ Church College in the past. The rest of the site had inconsequential sheds and other functional buildings at the time of purchase.

Lutyens conceived of the site as the beginnings of a full, new quad which he hoped would, some day, be completed when land and resources became available. He arranged his new building in an L-shape along the east and north boundaries up to Micklem Hall. It is important to note that in that arrangement, it was the internal elevation and the building’s aspect to the junction of Brewer Street that were the most significant. Externally, therefore, the composition has three parts. Firstly, there is the old hall. Attached to it is a corner element housing the entrance, lecture room on the ground floor, and the chapel above it, on the first floor. Attached but perpendicular to that, and continuing along to the south boundary onto Rose Passage, is a three-storey accommodation wing. That wing is symmetrical with its main entrance placed centrally off the quad.

Micklem Hall is a four storey building. To Brewer Street the ground, first, and second floor walls are built of various kinds of coursed and un-coursed rubble stone, while the gable was altered by Lutyens to be clad in hung tiles … not stone, as perhaps one would have supposed. The building has two, slightly off-centre, vertical sliding sash windows over a painted, wooden 3/4 engaged Doric door case. Lutyens picked out the base of the tile-hung gable with a band of ashlar stone, which turns into flush stringcourse as it wraps itself around the entire new building to emerge on the quad elevations as a moulded stringcourse. The effect is to turn the entire building up to that height, into a huge base for the chapel building which rises above it and elucidates, perhaps, why the hall gable was tile hung: so as not to compete with the stone chapel in importance. This base is then articulated, from east to west, as an immense wall of cleverly grouped and overlapping local symmetries, anchored at the centre by the heavy, deeply recessed, arched entrance opening, interrupting the flatness of the street wall and creating an impression of substance and gravity. The articulation of this north elevation deserves closer scrutiny because, although it appears picturesque and asymmetrical, it is, in fact, a wonderfully composed and balanced opus which shows Lutyens at his full but subtle mastery.

Principal entrance to Campion Hall. Photo by author

The main door is placed at the centre of the whole north elevation, taking in both the new and the old buildings. That resolution ties together what might otherwise have been just a collection of architectural parts. Centred on the entrance door is a strictly symmetrical group of openings that start with arches to the basement, leaded lights in splayed mullion stone windows at ground floor level, a coat of arms over the door, and a pair of flat plate-tracery windows to the chapel above the stone string course. From that central “column” of symmetry, all the elements dissipate horizontally in a series of echoing minor symmetries. The composition is so pleasing and successful because of its underlying order. It seems extraordinary that Lutyens would have made the effort to compose such an elevation when, as a whole, it cannot be seen face on. It is a delicious but unlikely thought that Lutyens was showing his modernist contemporaries that he could handle horizontally asymmetrical composition as well as any man!

Lutyens takes this game of overlapping symmetries onto a larger scale in the de-sign of the west elevation to the residential wing. This wing is 190 feet long and 40 feet deep. A steeply pitched tile roof, deceptively small because it consists of two parallel ridges and a central valley gutter, caps the building. Had the roof been a simple dual pitch, it would have been a full 1/3 taller and would have visually overwhelmed the elevations and, more importantly, the chapel roof. The effort and expanse of this arrangement is a testimony to Lutyens’s perception and sensitivity.

The ground floor plan (first in American parlance) of Campion Hall. Photo by author

The west elevation, at first glance, is a straightforward rendition of an Elizabethan type. Leaded lights are set into a regularly arranged, splayed mullion stone window, to the same design as those on the north and east elevations. The elevation taken as a whole has grandeur, imparted by a pair of plain stone gables a little way in from each end of the roof and by an imposing central door. Lutyens created subtle interest by placing his architectural elements together in ways that he had tried more modestly 30 years earlier at a private house in Sussex called Little Thakenham. Like Thakenham, Campion Hall has an overall Tudor or late gothic feel. At Thakenham, Lutyens gave his design the appearance of architectural accretion by designing a classical entrance arch with moulded keystone and imposts. At Campion Hall, he inserted a great central door surround, in the form of a pair of Delhi order pilasters, carved in Clipsham stone to match the golden colour of the wall. The architecture of the door sits on a great, stepped and blocked, white Portland stone base, connecting the whole with the band of Portland stone edging of the quadrangle path. The visitor, therefore, rises from the quad into the piano nobile of the building at the level of the library and refectory. The use of the Delhi order is a bit puzzling in the context not only of the building but also of Oxford. However, Lutyens was very fond of reusing bits of architecture that worked well before. In that sense he is pragmatic, a craftsman rather than a theorist or relent-less innovator. Much of the joinery detail in Campion Hall will be recognizable and familiar from other Lutyens buildings!

But closer analysis of this elevation reveals a most interesting variation on the Tudor theme in that the windows are not placed, as one might expect, one above the other as the floors rise. Instead, they are grouped in a very sophisticated sequence of overall, local, and overlapping symmetries. There is a regular beat of alternating 2 and 3 bay windows at the basement level which is picked up by all the other windows on the elevation, but at different rhythms, to form a complex pattern of relationships, tied together by the high level horizontal band, now a moulded string course. The complexity is such that at almost no point along the length of the entire elevation is there stone wall from ground to roof, yet the internal arrangement is entirely regular. It is, perhaps, this lack of a continuous wall face or the urge not to disrupt the pattern with vertical elements that Lutyens chose to internalise the rainwater pipes. Water is collected in conventional gutters and then scooped-up in projecting stone scuppers to pipework hidden within the walls.

The east elevation, the outside elevation facing the lane between Brewer Street and Rose Passage, is treated very much as the rear of this wing. It would have caused Lutyens no difficulty to arrange the elevation symmetrically. Instead, he chose to leave only remnants of those symmetries that are fully articulated on the west elevation, but he intimates the real nature of the building by breaking the long roof centrally, into two half hips, over the upper level recessed bay. That recess has the internal function of lighting the central corridor half way along its length. Most curiously, the high level moulded stringcourse makes a brief re-appearance at this recess but is placed independently above the plain stringcourse, where one would have expected to find it! The symmetry is further obscured, as the lower two floors of the northern half of the elevation are pulled out 4 feet from the plane of the main elevation. The effect is to give the outside of the building a picturesque, lower status quality but with clues to intrigue those willing to look more closely.

The north face of the edifice with the tile-hung gable. Photo by author

It is possible that the main entrance door from Brewer Street is positioned on the north elevation because, internally, it also affords a direct corner entry into the quad. However convenient that may have been, Lutyens was usually more interested in expanding the experience of an interior through the intricate planning of rooms and corridors. His circuitous route to the chapel, surely the most important room in the building, demonstrates this well. Upon entry to the building, the visitor passes through a lobby, turns left down a corridor and then right into a staircase. He ascends the stairs to land in another corridor, directly over the one he came along on the ground floor below. He then goes back along that corridor and finds the double door entry into the chapel on his right. When finally in the chapel, there is yet another turn to the right, to face the main altar. The journey from the street to the sacred space of the chapel sounds confusing but feels quite correct when experienced. Lutyens often employed such indirect routes in his private houses and, as long as each section is kept short, the effect imparts importance and scale to a route in a modestly sized building. At Campion Hall, however, there is another reason for this complexity, because the chapel is oriented, as it should be, to the east. The arrival route facilitates an entrance, through the ante-chapel, from the west end. This corner of the site was the only position where that traditional orientation of the chapel could have been maintained.

The first floor plan (second in American parlance) of Campion Hall, showing the location of the house chapel at the northeast corner of the property. Photo by author

The chapel is quite small. It is only 18 feet wide, 27 feet high to the crown of the barrel vault and, including the ante-chapel, about 56 feet long. The ante-chapel is entered through a pair of doors from the corridor towards a plain stone altar. Above the altar is a horizontal painting showing St. Thomas More’s last journey from Chelsea. Above that, centrally over the altar, is a stone window, the external right-hand window of the central pair, high above the main entrance door. Separating the ante-chapel from the main chapel is an oak and ironwork screen, topped with Lutyens de-signed light fittings. The chapel itself has an apse at the east end, filled with a baldachino, that conventional wisdom might suggest befitting an interior twice the size. Yet, the baldachino, where the Delhi order re-appears as fully articulated pine columns, is so elegantly intertwined with the geometry of the apse that it appears to grow naturally out of it.

Interior of Campion Hall Chapel. Photo by author

The oak pews are fixed and sit on the Portland stone and slate floor by means of an almost incongruous, wave-like, vermilion-painted string beam that is probably the result of some Lutyens humour now lost. To each side of the pews, there is oak panelling on the walls to match the screen at the rear and into which lithograph Stations of the Cross have been set. Above the pews and almost inaccessible are the main hanging light fittings for the chapel. They resemble the tassels on a cardinal’s hat and their high inaccessibility is said to be another piece of Lutyens wit, playing on the Jesuit’s ineligibility to the high office of cardinal!

The vermillion string beam along the bottom of the pews, probably the result of some Lutyens humor now lost. Photo by author

Internally, the student rooms are arranged in two rows along a central corridor on the two upper levels. The ground floor has a short hall across the width of the building from the honor-ific door off the quad. To the south of that corridor is the library and to the north the dining room. At the far north end of the dining room is a paired door leading to the main stair near the chapel.

Most of the interiors of Campion Hall are plain, as befits both the institution and the budget. However, the Jesuit Fathers must have enjoyed the experience of working with Lutyens because he was asked to design the fittings and furniture for the dining room, library, and chapel. Much of that furniture, desks, fireplaces and napkin closets are happily still in use. It is in the fitting out of the chapel that Lutyens really excelled.

A Lutyens-designed napkin closet. Photo by author

A few years later, Lutyens was asked to extend the facilities by providing a great dining room to complete the south side of the envisaged quad. It was not built, and instead, another residential wing, in a vague Lutyens style but without humour or subtlety, was constructed in the 1950s. It doesn’t especially detract from the original creation and we should be thankful that it wasn’t designed in the decades that followed the 1950s!

Despite his thoughtful work at Campion Hall, Lutyens’ professional fortunes never fully revived. Architectural tastes changed with the mounting victory of modernism. Sadly, he died, surrounded by his drawings of the never-to-be-completed Liverpool Cathedral, on 1 January 1944.

Its easy to understand that, in 1932, Lutyens would have been very keen to work n a major civic project, especially one for a new college in Oxford. In his situation, perhaps, he should have produced an instant “hit”—an eye-catching exuberant work of ego that might have revived his career at a stroke. Instead, Lutyens chose to do the right thing for his client, the site, and his craft. He had an affinity for architecture that was almost physical; he felt architecture, rather than thought it. At Campion Hall, amidst the mounting chaos of his private life and the depression of his professional life, he settled back into the permanent world of “thick noiseless walls” that he had known in the past.

Campion Hall is a beautiful, polite, and very sophisticated building that the architectural world passed by almost un-noticed because, as Lutyens had feared, a new era had arrived. Architects’ eyes were turning elsewhere. In 1925, Le Corbusier had produced his Plan Voisin for Paris and by 1932 he had built the Villa Savoye. 1932 also saw the construction of Terragni’s grid-like Casa del Fascio in Como. A new kind of “genius” was in the ascendant.