Bodleian Law Library a modern architectural landmark

By | 29 August 2012

Further to my earlier post about the Bodleian Law Library’s participation in “Oxford Open Doors”, and for the benefit of readers whose chief interest is likely to be law, it might be useful to say something about the architectural significance of the building.

The St. Cross Building was designed by Leslie Martin and Colin St. John Wilson (two of the leading architects of the time), and was part of the first wave of overtly Modernist architecture in Oxford.  It was completed in 1964 and is now listed at Grade II *.  Martin had earlier designed the Royal Festival Hall, undoubtedly his most famous work.  Wilson is now best known for a later project, the new British Library building in St. Pancras in London.

The Law Library is characterized by light and spaciousness and, in something of a new departure for Oxford libraries, has almost its entire collection immediately available on open shelves.  The most significant architectural influences were Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

The building has frequently been mentioned in architectural literature.  As might be expected, there are both favourable and unfavourable comments, and there is sometimes a touch of humour as well.  Here are two interesting examples.

Geoffrey Robson, a practicing architect, writing in 1966 (RIBA Journal), states that the “great flight of steps leading . . . , with a positively Aztec feeling of the imminence of human sacrifice, to the entrance to the law library, is a conception which will do much to confirm the incipient lawyer in a belief in his detached and almost godlike qualities.”  (Is it too much to hope that such qualities are also attributable to library staff?!?)  He ends, though, on a more serious note:  “I am certain that it will remain one of the most important buildings of the mid-twentieth century, and one of the most revealing:  a rugged mass full of internal structural tensions; a monolithic form composed of brick, concrete and light alloy; a monument to our desperate desire for permanence and stability.”

The most enthusiastic comment comes from Niklaus Pevsner, writing in 1974 (The Buildings of England):  “The Law Library is the only recent university (as against college) building in Oxford of international calibre . . . . In spite of its relative lowness . . . this is a monumental building.  The approach to the Law Library establishes that at once, a wide, open staircase rising . . . to the entrance platform.  It has the splendour of Persepolis.”

If you are not familiar with the library, come and visit us and see what you think.

One thought on “Bodleian Law Library a modern architectural landmark

  1. Martin Smith

    Dear Ron. Despite all the architectural encomiums, the internal arrangement of the Law Library is very inconvenient for the staff. Martin Smith, an inmate from 1964 to 1996.

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