Context 166 - November 2020

22 C O N T E X T 1 6 6 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 0 integrated into the Norman castle in 1071–73. Every piece of coral rag is a primary source, witness of the dark ages. It was clear to us that in the context of such rare fabric only the least intrusive structure should be inserted, to allow future visitors access to a platform on top of the tower with views down on Oxford. We climbed the Castle Mound and continued our chronological journey along the surviving walls of the prison complex. As medieval forti- fication gave way to the prison building in the age of enlightenment, we stopped at D-Wing and its apsidal east end, Debtors’ Tower. Built around 1785 by William Blackburn, leading prison architect of the Georgian era, its regular fenestration reflects innovative thinking along the lines of ventilation and equality – some- thing Parliamentarians imprisoned during the English civil war were brutally denied when the governor forced them to succumb in their own waste. The castle’s exterior appears forbidding, but it is testimony to changing attitudes in the rationalisation of punishment. Coincidentally, Oxford was also the birthplace of methodism, and the Wesley brothers themselves visited the prison as early as 1730. Encouraged by a member of the Holy Club, they returned weekly to pay visits to debtors and felons incarcerated behind the castle walls. Their cells have long gone, as by far the largest portion of the prison dates back to the Victorian era, partially based on the design of Pentonville Prison in the London borough of Islington. Since the oldest parts of the castle, scheduled monument and Grade I-listed, were unsuitable for a hotel conversion, the Victorian A-Wing was earmarked for hotel use. Here the archi- tectural team faced the task of integrating a modern hotel behind prison walls with small and high-level windows. The solution: rather than lowering the massive stringcourse, an additional narrow window opening should be pierced below every third cell window, providing outside views to every hotel room. The resulting fenestration would reflect the conversion of three cells into one guest room without compromising the stern character of the prison elevation.  1 The regeneration, in partnership, by the Osborne Group, Oxfordshire County Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust has strength- ened the cohesion of the town centre with a large mixed-use development. It has also given a boost to the local tourism industry. Day visitors can book the Oxford Castle and Prison experience, while resident guests may stay overnight in the former prison cells of the hotel conversion. The location with its unsettling past proves to be popular with tourists, and it has always attracted the interest of film and television crews. The new hotel belongs to the Malmaison Group, named after Napoleon’s last residence in France in 1815. Exclusiveness is at the heart of the hotel chain’s business model, not less so at the core of its Oxford branch. The interior plays the dichotomy of voluntary and involuntary exclusion to its advantage. In that way, by perpetuating the memory of incarceration while combining it with the enjoyment of gastronomy services, it fulfils one of the principles at the heart of the regeneration concept. From the outset, the vast site has been por- tioned into distinct zones, each catering for a different clientele: the educational heritage experience (Castle Mound, St George’s Tower, Crypt, D-Wing and Debtors’ Tower); the exclu- sive hotel experience (converted A-Wing); the inclusive experience of a public space with bars and restaurants (in front of the former prison entrance); and the private sphere of residential accommodation (new development along the southern fringe). By engaging with the site in different ways, the project has triggered the hugely successful heritage-led regeneration of the city centre and released a core part of Oxford that had been off limits for almost a millennium. Who could have thought earlier this year that a virus would suddenly turn the world upside down? In Oxford, like everywhere else, residential accommodation has turned from a basis of personal independence into lockdown space, effectively resulting in house arrest for shielding and self-isolating individuals. Hotels, bars and restaurants, established platforms of human communication and interaction, have turned into a minefield of potential infection and enforced social distancing. Isolation has been at the heart of Oxford Castle’s history, including sieges, incarceration and exclusiveness. Now, with the regenerated site facing up to the pandemic, isolation seems to remain the dominating theme in the life of the castle. As the world looks forward to an end of the pandemic, isolation will hopefully become a thing of the past in the castle quarter and, as far as exclusion is concerned, at Oxford University, too. Michael Asselmeyer, a former principal conservation and design manager at the London Borough of Islington and senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Central Lancashire, worked with Richard Griffiths on Oxford Castle. Oxford Castle, 1675. Castle Mound is in the centre, with St George’s Tower behind. The print shows the considerable urban area occupied by the castle site for over 900 years, and how it avoided the street network (Print: David Loggan, Oxonia Illustrata, Map of Oxford, British Library, Wikimedia) 1 Griffiths, Richard (2019) Old Buildings, New Architecture , Richard Griffiths Architects, London