Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Writing on the Wall

The college was in high celebratory mood last weekend, as we marked the opening of Somerville’s gleaming new ROQ buildings, which will provide accommodation for 68 second-year undergraduates from October. Niall McLaughlin Architects told the Fellows right from their opening pitch for this project that their practice was to work closely with potential users to create the best possible, people-friendly buildings. It is now clear how true to their word they were – the ROQ buildings have textured interior walls which look like a modern art installation, glass towers to shine light into the corridors, kitchens in the trendiest brightest colours, and very tempting desks in window alcoves, with views onto the developing Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (as it takes shape under a forest of cranes…)

What most impressed me about the buildings, however, were not their aesthetic or eco-friendly credentials, but the way in which the two structures embody memory. Memory is a concept (or a social phenomenon) which historians have become increasingly interested in the past decade. At the University of Leiden, for example, Professor Judith Pollmann is leading a project on local memories of the 16C Dutch Revolt in the 17C, while Janet Watson’s 2007 monograph studied memories of the First World War in Britain. The corridors of the ROQ buildings are full of plaques. These don’t give just the name of the donor who sponsored an individual student room, kitchen, or entire floor, but carry messages from those donors to future student-inhabitants. Whole year groups (e.g. year of 1960) have sponsored rooms, to celebrate the formative 3 years they spent together at Somerville. Certain rooms have been dedicated in memory of late Somervillians, by their friends and contemporaries. A recent JCR President sponsored a kitchen - his plaque gives a favourite quote from Lucretius, and urges students to enjoy their time here. On another plaque, two major benefactors celebrate the fact that they met as Oxford undergraduates, and remember their subsequent marriage in a church close to the college. The ROQ buildings, in a very-past conscious way, transmit and store memory. They are an eloquent and moving reminder that an Oxford college is not just a collection of smart buildings, but a dynamic inter-generational community.

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