June 20: The Oxford Museum

2016/06/20 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1855 the foundation stone of the Oxford Museum was laid.

The building was designed to be a great showpiece and cabinet of wonders for students of the natural world.  Designed by Deane and Woodward, it is one of the great examples of the metallic Victorian Gothic idiom that was increasingly utilized in great civic buildings.  Its exterior is a sound masonry shell while the interior opens into a light-filled court of tall iron colonettes that support ranges of skylights.  Constructed just a few years after the Crystal Palace, it takes up the challenge of that great big greenhouse which was hailed as an interesting new technology but criticized as being not quite architecture.  The Oxford Museum adopted the ideal of light metallic construction to make an airy, evenly illuminated space for the display of specimens protected by an incombustible structure, but elevated the language to real architecture, with the pedigree of Gothic and everything.  The treatment of the iron colonettes, seen above, is a case in point.  Emphasizing the method of their making as cast, hammered, bent, twisted and pinned metal pieces, they’re conceptually similar to the stone column capitals in the surrounding galleries that likewise reveal the virtuosity of their individual sculptors in a variety of flora.  And, like the masonry architecture of the place , they curve into graceful lancet arch forms.

Like any new material when it is first introduced at a large-scale in architecture, iron suggested possibilities and posed challenges.  Ruskin (following the lead of Pugin) famously argued against its application in “dishonest” ways.  But he also acted as a kind of advisor to the architects here at Oxford, apparently approving of this particular exercise in iron.  It’s hard to argue with Ruskin, and it’s hard to deny that this building really gets it right.

Go there now and take a look around, or look at these great pix, inside and out.

Image: inside the court (Clio’s)

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