The Wolfson Foundation’s grant-making file on their relationship with Wolfson College Oxford, commences with an offer of £1.5 million for a new graduate college, omitting the negotiations that must have taken place in the months leading up to that point. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of how Wolfson’s generosity – what Sir Isaiah Berlin called “this noble and indispensable act” – was seen through to completion, and the construction of a new academic resource.
Running through this discourse is the formidable intellect, enthusiasm, and humour of Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), the first President of Wolfson College Oxford, who steered the new establishment into life and oversaw its construction. The architecture of Wolfson College was entrusted to the practice of Sir Philip Powell (1921-2003) and John Hidalgo Moya (1920-1994) the designers of the 1951 Festival of Britain’s ‘Skylon’. For Berlin, they produced democratic features, such as the College’s single common room and a punting harbour on the River Cherwell. Parts of the College buildings, now listed, were inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s love of Portofino Harbour in Italy, from where he sent postcards to the architects.
The establishment was based upon Iffley College, originally founded to provide a home for academic staff with no other college fellowships. But when the completed building complex opened in 1974, it was able to capitalise on the Wolfson grant (raised to £2 million and matched by the Ford Foundation) to become an all-graduate college with a distinctly international academic profile, in keeping with the pluralism of its founding President.