The grandiose college town of Oxford is known for its prestige and history. Rocky cobblestone sideroads wind throughout the city, sitting at the base of the overwhelmingly ornate fortress-shaped campuses. Oxford, made up of 38 separate colleges, allows its students, instructors and tourists to enter through the black and golden gates and step inside a living time capsule. Not only can they follow in the same footprints that alumni J.R.R. Tolkien, Margaret Thatcher and Oscar Wilde once walked, but they can also awe at the breathtaking architecture and art that built the famous city. With its centuries-old structures, dreaming spires and ivy vines, Oxford’s decorum and spacial designs defy the concepts of living in the present moment.
This past summer I lived and studied at Magdalen College, founded in 1458. It was one of the many Oxford colleges that made me feel like Harry Potter the first time he arrived at Hogwarts. My 18th-century residence hall –– ironically known as “New Building” –– was also the place where C.S. Lewis, author of the famous “Chronicles of Narnia”series, once resided. He climbed the same stairs, had the same views of the landscape and took the same paths to class each day. Although each year new students and professors filter in and out, these buildings’ faces don’t change –– these places are used but still untouched. Oxford’s historic structures make you feel their presence and their ghosts, allowing the campus to be an ever-evolving space without physical changes.
Other structures at Oxford still stand and the University prides itself on its architectural artifacts. University College is the oldest college, originating with just a house in 1332 and University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, dates back to 1280, decorated with high statue reliefs and gargoyles. Of course, renovations and additions are made to buildings in order to make accommodations and cater to newer generations. But the beauty of Oxford is how grounded it is in its past — how it values its ancientness and is eager to keep it the same way for generations. This concept felt drastically different when returning to Ann Arbor this fall.
Although still special, everywhere I now turn on campus, I see another fence, another crane, another building or statue stripped down to its bones or removed completely. How can we as academic communities (or any community for that matter) have our own set of history if we are constantly changing the spaces that make it so unique? And what does that say about our story of 201 years?
Our University’s campus is currently modernizing and expanding its spaces while still trying to be conscious of its history, its victors and its recently celebrated bicentennial. Yet in some way, these buildings feel tainted now –– like The Union, the LSA Building and the original Ulrich’s –– recrafted to make wannabe glass windows and geometric shaped walls and high rises and who knows what else. When I came back to campus, I felt that Michigan was closing its time capsule, or merely digging a new one.
It is important to note, however, that like any highly-populated, dynamic community, Oxford has renovated their campus to become more modernized as well. This includes St. Catherine’s College, which was founded in 1962 and is certainly more contrasted than the English Gothic or Neoclassical architecture that saturates the city. Nonetheless, architecture demands our attention: It needs us to use its functions to create a narrative, to feel emotion and to make memories of our own. And while both are beautiful, it is quite a different feeling and a different story than when walking into the Law Library compared to Ross.
It was during my time at Oxford that I exercised my admiring eye for architecture, and I allowed myself to think about what it means to spend time in ancient versus new spaces. In no way is modernization negative, but it definitely alters the identity of a place that is embedded in the past. I thought about what it would be like if Oxford took down various buildings on their main campus road, stripping away the work of artistic designs and studies of famous scholars. All things considered, it would not feel like Oxford. And if we change the structures that make Michigan Michigan, we might be closing a chapter of what makes our own history so unique.