An extraordinary English cathedral of sorts.

Just off the busy Oxford to Swindon highway lies one of Europe’s great cathedrals. Great Coxwell barn is not of course a cathedral, but it certainly feels like it. This majestic building, dated by dendrochronology, was roofed with timbers felled in 1291-92 when the champion lands of the Vale of the White Horse were producing prodigious quantities of foodstuffs and wool. It is a metaphor of an economy at its zenith.

Great Coxwell barn

This Cistercian barn belonged to Coxwell Grange, and reflects the corporate, international connections that the black monks ramped up massively in the later 13th century.

The barn owes its international status to a forensic study by the American architectural historian, Walter Horn. Born in Germany, he studied with the legendary art historian, Erwin Panofsky, to whom Horn’s later masterpiece, The Plan of St. Gall (1979) is dedicated. His doctorate completed, like Panofsky he fled Nazi Germany, first for Italy then the University of California where he won a teaching position. In 1943 he volunteered for military service and by 1945 was a ‘monuments’ man’ in Patton’s Third Army. Famously Horn recovered the Imperial Regalia of Charlemagne, the crown, sceptre and jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, hidden by the Nazis in the hope of using them in future propaganda.

The architecture of the barn

Returning to the University of California, Horn struck up a collaboration with the San Francisco modernist architect and sometime book designer, Ernest Born (1898-1992). Their first collaboration was an elegantly illustrated monograph on the English medieval Cistercian granges at Great Coxwell and Beaulieu St. Leonard (1965). This study with its lavish illustrations of timber detailing as well as reconstructions established the style they famously brought to The Plan of St. Gall.

A forest of trusses

The huge quantities of timber and stone slate distract you from the fortress-like masonry of the building. In its vaunting vision and execution this barn speaks to an agrarian age that instinctively looked towards the agricultural revolution of the later 18th century, five hundred years later.

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