The Radcliffe Observatory is another of Oxford’s well kept secrets, despite it being all of five minutes walk from the city centre and one of the most beautiful structures in a city that’s already fairly easy on the eye. It might suffer from being a little dinky and is tucked away in the grounds of an all-graduate college but it deserves a least a bit of the praise lavished on its namesake, the Radcliffe Camera. The actual observatory kit has long gone and it’s been decommissioned since the early 20th century. Now it’s just an amazing Italianate building without any particular purpose.
Luckily Modern Art Oxford have opened it up until 3 December for a work by someone called Susan Philipsz. Just turn up on any day except Monday between 2pm and 5pm and a cheery person will show you up into the building. There’s a grand Georgian staircase that’s more befitting of a country house, a massive first floor room with windows from floor-to-ceiling that acts as a reading room for college students and a large, airy space at the top where the equipment used to be. Given that the functional requirement of this building was to provide a platform that got a telescope fifty metres above the ground it’s fair to suggest that the builders overdid it on the detail and it’s a triumph of form over function.
Why are we here? Oh yeah, art. This is an exhibition where the art comes second to the venue but on a late Autumn afternoon the soundscapes are pretty lovely. Sadly “You’re Not Alone” doesn’t consist of them playing the only hit song of 90s dance wotsits ‘Olive’ again and again out of a soundsystem in the ageing structure. The concept? Soundwaves never die and since early radio stations sent out time signals to check reception these sounds are still out there. So lets rebroadcast them on a local FM frequency in the city centre and pick them via receivers inside the observatory. The open, tall gallery is filled with primitive bips and bleeps that have the same warm FM fuzz to them that you get on Belle & Sebastian’s “Electronic Renaissance”.
Olive: not at the Radcliffe Observatory
Yeah, it’s all very nice. But from this glorious perch the real beauty is in watching the light creep in through the windows, seeing Oxford stretching out before you and taking in the enormous empty space where Oxford’s first hospital, the Radcliffe Infirmary, stood until only two years ago. It’s unrecognisable compared to what it used to be. And it won’t be staying like this for long. It’s going to be replaced by a new University complex of plate glass boredom but at the moment the effect is liberating on the old building that surround the site. Get there while you can – the builders are about to move in and while there’s apparently another exhibition planned for the Observatory this is the last chance you’ll ever get to see it in its singular glory.
Stairway to the heavens