Thinking Outside the Quadrangle

by Benét Burton, ’21

A sign of good design is its ability to be reinterpreted. Whether conceptually, theoretically, or physically, a space that can be redefined is an indication of its longevity. In historic spaces such as Oxford University, good design is easy to find and easy to reinterpret. With Dr. William Whyte as our tour guide, our cohort explored the inner spaces of Oxford, the quadrangles of the institution that created the academic quarters that past and future scholars inhabit. However, while these areas of academia were rightfully interesting, what caught my eye were not the well-articulated scholarly spaces but instead the ones just outside of its proximity. 

a view of a grassy quad through an arch

View of the quad, St. John’s College, Oxford. Photo by author

Visibly, the architecture of Oxford is created for exclusion. Closed quarters and high walls, the university’s design exemplifies a need to separate the scholars of the institute from outside life. Even though the quadrangles have stood the test of time the surrounding areas of Oxford have changed drastically. Traversing through the city I began to take notice of the many displaced peoples inhabiting the streets of the collegiate environment. Every 45 steps I took, I found myself in the presence of displacement, either through a person asking for spare change or the abandoned bedding of those who left their makeshift homes for the day. While the sight of homeless people is, unfortunately, not abnormal, what was striking was their use of the historical architecture as shelter. The displaced population of Oxford managed to take spaces meant to reject them and recreate them into areas for their use, subverting the narrative of exclusivity through architecture. 

an upwards view of a gothic cathedral

Bath Cathedral, Bath, England. Photo by author

I witnessed this phenomenon in Bath as well, a city whose decadent past lures in a thriving tourist community. Amidst the commercial spaces and museums, the homeless population carves out areas for themselves in the nooks and crannies of the city. Juxtaposed against the capitalist landscape are sleeping bags and piles of blankets set up. Outside of an abandoned church, close to our hotel at the time, the Henrietta House, we passed one setup where an individual had designated areas for their belongings; One corner for their bedding, one corner as a seating arrangement, and another corner for their clothes. This person had transformed a historic building entryway into their home, a home where despite being open to the elements, was still respected as a private dwelling. In my curiosity, I had wanted to gain a closer look but found myself bound by the unspoken rules of homeownership, I could not cross the threshold without permission. Once again, the design of the architecture was reinterpreted. Similar to Oxford, Bath’s buildings had come to inadvertently include the very people who in theory, were intended to be excluded. 

a large georgian building made of Bath stone

The exterior of the Pump Room, Bath, England. Photo by author

In Bath and Oxford, I rightfully questioned my privilege as both a tourist and a scholar. The existence of these spaces and my ability to navigate them with ease led me to acknowledge the dissonance of my being a foreigner who belongs, while those who belong become foreigners in their own cityscape. As an academic, I must not only question my access to these spaces but also, their creation and consequential destruction. To study these architectural designs is to study the ways they affect the surrounding community. What does it mean to be privileged and to have access to an exclusive environment being redesigned by those excluded? How can we as scholars redefine these spaces to give access to those who inadvertently utilize them? The key to solving homelessness will not be found in this blog post, but I hope the next time you find yourself on a guided tour of historic buildings, you think outside the quadrangle and question what the space means for displaced peoples.

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