The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Isaiah Berlin, Wolfson College and Portofino

The College is indebted to Dr Jeremy Black for this article, which is adapted from 'Happy Return',
in the Wolfson College Record (1992-93), pp. 52-62.

Not everyone who visits Wolfson today is aware that the architecture of the main buildings deliberately evokes that of a town on the Italian Riviera.  On some of the earlier versions of the plan of the College prepared by the architectural partnership of Powell and Moya, the shape of B block is different from the curved shape which it eventually acquired (the south wing, on the left in the photo).  The earlier plans show it with two straight sides linked at an oblique angle - what architects call a crank.  Isaiah Berlin had a particular interest in this point of the design.

Portofino harbour

Wolfson punt harbour

        Sir Philip Powell recalls, "The crank upset and worried him.  He muttered that he liked curves.  We defended the crank; the proposed treatment of the landscape and of the water's edge of the punt harbour responded to it.  We therefore resisted what we thought might be a worrying change by the artificail introduction of a curve."  But, suggested Sir Isaiah, perhaps the architects would think about it a little more? It wasn't too late for a change.

        At that time Sir Isaiah Berlin had a house in Portofino.  In the summer of 1968, Sir Philip was bombarded with postcards of the place, sometimes with an Italian postmark, later with an Oxford one, showing the coincidental similarity of the shape of Portofino's harbour with Wolfson's - Portofino's with a curved range of buildings on one side, Wolfson's wth a crank.  On the first of the postcards Sir Isaiah had written: "Don't you see?  This is the way to do it.  It looks absolutely lovely and if you bend the postcard..." (which otherwise did not accentuate the curve enough) "'ll see just what it is.  It's terribly nice."

        Later more postcards arrived, for example:

Portofino.  Panorama notturno del porticciolo.  1.8.68  "I continue to persecute you.  The colours [of the postcard] are hideous: but you'll have no difficulty in abstracting your vision and Moya's from them.  The shape tells its own tale, surely?  Can it be the sylvan scene of 'Cherwell', where everything curls and curves, and the trees, branches, grass, stream, each pursues its irregular complex lines and fantastic patterns - is it here that rectilinear rigours are most suitable?  Let me persuade you to a shape less stiff.  I.B."

        'Cherwell' was the old Haldane family house on the site where the College now stands.  On the very next day, another card came, with the concise message:

        Portofino. 2.8.68.  "And again.  I.B."

        Later that month, Sir isaiah wrote:

        Portofino.  Angolo pittoresco.  17.8.68.  "The green lawn is marvellous - Portofino is much improved by it: but even without it, it is much more beautiful, especially because of its exquisite curve, than Cassis, or indeed any French mediterranean harbour city - do, do persist in letting your gifts solve this problem!  think, think of the admiration and gratitude of posterity, long after the problems of graduates' wives and covered garages and pre-helicopter lives have grown obsolete...  I.B."

        "Meanwhile", continues Philip Powell, "We had been having a go at making the curve work, with suitable changes in the landscaping and in the treatment of the water.  I was, finally happy with the result, Moya a little less so - but we made the change.  Block B's curved wall was affectionally known in our office as the Berlin Wall."

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library