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Sir Thomas White Building, St John's College

A Grade II Listed Building in Carfax, Oxfordshire

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Latitude: 51.7574 / 51°45'26"N

Longitude: -1.2583 / 1°15'29"W

OS Eastings: 451290

OS Northings: 206787

OS Grid: SP512067

Mapcode National: GBR 8YY.LR0

Mapcode Global: VHCXV.43N2

Entry Name: Sir Thomas White Building, St John's College

Listing Date: 30 January 2017

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1439624

Location: Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1

County: Oxfordshire

District: Oxford

District Council Ward: Carfax

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Oxford

Traditional County: Oxfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Oxfordshire

Church of England Parish: Oxford St Giles

Church of England Diocese: Oxford

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Student accommodation and common rooms, designed 1967-70 by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates, built 1972-5.


Student accommodation and common rooms, designed 1967-70, built 1972-5, designed by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates for St John’s College. The contractors were Johnson and Baily Ltd, and the pre-cast concrete was by Sindall Concrete Products Ltd.

STRUCTURE and MATERIALS: a series of linked pavilions assembled from pre-cast H- and half-H-units of white cement with a grey limestone aggregate, bush hammered where exposed. The floor slabs are concrete and the building is clad in St Maximin limestone. The full-height windows are in metal frames. The recessed penthouses are block-work structures with timber roofs, all clad in lead sheeting.

PLAN: the building stands to the NE of northern quadrangle of St John’s College. It has an L-shaped footprint, with the two main wings running roughly W-E and N-S, adjoining 31 Museum Road at the NE corner. The plan creates an open quadrangle to the SW, the sense of enclosure created by a square pavilion projecting westwards from the S end of the N-S wing, the rear of the earlier Rawlinson Building, and the mature trees of the President’s garden.

The N elevation of the W-E wing backs onto Lamb and Flag Passage and Museum Road, straddling an earlier boundary wall. Adjacent to the E elevation is another lawn, enclosed by the rears of 25-31 Museum Road and the W elevation of the Garden Quadrangle (1993).

The building is five storeys; the common rooms, porter’s lodge and services are on the ground floor, with bedrooms on the floors above. Aside from the smaller square end pavilions, each block is two units deep, and adjoins a stair and service tower containing WCs, sinks, shower rooms and kitchens. On the fifth floor, recessed from the building line and with deep balconies, are a reduced number of larger bedroom units, with baths in the service towers.

EXTERIOR: the building has a modular appearance, consisting of octagonal pavilions linked by the blind, octagonal stair and service towers, and with square pavilions at the ends. The pavilions are characterised by the prominent concrete frame; each has three bays, with paired posts framing the central bay, and bays to either side with open angles. Where the vertical posts of the frame meet the horizontal beams the corners are splayed, and this 45-degree angle is repeated in various guises across the building: the chamfered corners of the towers, the recessed octagonal penthouse units, the angled door heads, angled steps, and other details. At each junction between the H- or half-H-shaped units of the frame is a notch, emphasising the modularity of the structure.

At ground-floor level the elevation is recessed from the building line, and the paired posts form a colonnade running the length of the internal elevation. On the N elevation an earlier rubble limestone wall bounds Lamb and Flag Passage and Museum Road; it stands just within the undercroft of the building, tight against the paired posts of the concrete fame. On the upper floors, the full-height windows sit behind the frame; the inward-facing elevation is almost entirely glazed, whereas, on the outer elevations, the central bays are infilled with stone cladding. The paired vertical posts of the concrete frame terminate at the level of the penthouse balconies, the balustrade to which is set back. The penthouse units are clad in lead and have shallow mansard roofs with hipped corners. The stair and service towers, with their canted corners, are blind and stone-clad, and together with the penthouses they create an undulating roofline.

INTERIOR: the narrow stairs, which spiral up their octagonal wells, are terrazzo with quarry tile skirtings, timber handrails, and are top-lit by lanterns. They lead to plainly detailed landings providing access to the bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen; internal doors have simple brushed-steel knobs and name plates.

The bedrooms retain good-quality oak fixtures, including window benches, bookcases, and latticed privacy screens which are set in concealed runners along the window frames or to create internal partitions.

Common rooms retain timber skirtings and windows cills, and doors with angled heads.


The growth in numbers of university students in the 1960s, though less pronounced at Oxford than in the new universities, necessitated additional accommodation. St John’s College held a limited competition in June 1967 to provide enough accommodation to house its students for three years of study.

The college prepared briefs for the building in 1966 and 1967 which were highly ambitious, and included lecture rooms, a science library, swimming pool, parking – possibly underground - dining facilities, a new senior common room, as well as bedrooms. The site chosen was to the NE of the northern quadrangle, on part of the President’s vegetable garden, replacing 33-41 Museum Road and St John’s House, and extending across Museum Road. The New Building Committee favoured the design submitted by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates, ahead of schemes proposed by HKPA, The Architects’ Co-Partnership and William Whitfield. However, budgets were progressively cut in 1968-70 as inflation began to rise, and the extent and complexity of the building was scaled down, resulting in a substantial redesign by Dowson. His final design was submitted in October 1970 and covered only the site S of Museum Road, providing 154 rooms for graduates and undergraduates, in the form of bed-sits or two-room sets, with communal bathrooms and kitchens, common rooms and a porter’s lodge.

Construction began in 1972 but was delayed by financial problems of the contractors and the three-day week. The first rooms were occupied in October 1974 and the building, named after the benefactor of the second founding of the college, was formally opened on 28 June 1975.

Tyack, in his study of post-war architecture at St John’s (2005), asserts that the Sir Thomas White Building embodies three basic ideas: the use of the structural grid, the external expression of the reinforced concrete frame, and the separation of structure and services. The quadrangle plan common in collegiate architecture was loosened, and a series of linked pavilions form a two-sided courtyard. The idea of a progression through a series of spaces, with new architectural elements emerging gradually, was important to Dowson, as was the relationship between building and gardens. As noted in ‘Concrete’, 1976, the new building re-delineated, rather than erased, the character of the Oxbridge microcosm.

The reduced extent of the building meant that a larger-than-intended proportion of the bedrooms faced north and east, and Dowson mitigated against this by developing the articulation between the stair towers and pavilions, and ensuring at least a slight dual-aspect from the corner windows. The narrow stairs and landings are so scaled due to the constrained site and demand for a large number of rooms; the narrowness was acknowledged by Dowson, though he maintained that students would no doubt choose that over smaller bedrooms. Clever ‘elevational plumbing’ channels dirt-laden rainwater into shallow troughs on the upper faces of the concrete frame, and into concealed downpipes, avoiding water run-off staining the elevations.

The building was well-received. It was the winning building in the 1976 Concrete Society Awards, in which the judges praised the ‘outstanding quality’ of the concrete frame (Forma, 1976); "'remarkable’ said one judge; ‘breath-taking’ said another’" (Glass Age, 1976). Incidentally, Arup Associates’ sister company, Ove Arup and Partners, won the equivalent prize in the civil engineering category, for the Berry Lane Viaduct, Chorleywood.

Philip Dowson (1924-2014) was born in South Africa. He served with the Navy in the Second World War, prior to which he studied maths for a year at Oxford, and following which he read art history at Cambridge. After attending the Architectural Association he joined the offices of Ove Arup, and in 1963 was a founding partner of Arup Associates, along with Sir Ove Arup, Ronald Hobbs and Derek Sugden. He later became the chief architect, and designed a number of renowned university buildings. Concrete Quarterly states the Sir Thomas White Building to be a classic in the Arup oeuvre, a perfection of the concrete theme developed at Leckhampton House, Corpus Christi, Cambridge, 1963-4, the Wolfson Bulding, Somerville College, Oxford, 1966-7, both listed at Grade II, and Boulton House, Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Dowson retired as a senior partner from Arup in 1990, and in 1993 was elected President of the Royal Academy of Arts. He was appointed CBE in 1969, and knighted in 1980.

Reasons for Listing

The Sir Thomas White Building, 1972-5, by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: a striking and assured composition characterised by the elegant, high-quality concrete frame, detailed to a high standard, carefully planned and loosely following the college quadrangle tradition;
* Interiors: the bedrooms retain good-quality built-in furniture, including unusual sliding lattice screens;
* Intactness: the building has undergone very little alteration;
* Significance of the architect: Arup Associates is an important post-war practice, and the building represents the refinement of a series of buildings designed by Philip Dowson, one of the firm’s founding members;
* Group value: with the many other listed buildings at St John’s College, and the wider area.

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