An 18th-century reworking of a German palace is first class, but a student hostel in Oxford barely scrapes a third, says Daniel Moylan

Balthasar Neumann worked best correcting errors bequeathed by others. At the palace at Bruchsal, south-west Germany, built for Cardinal von Schönborn, the space left by the architect for the imperial staircase was too narrow. A furious cardinal, condemned to using the servants’ stairs, sent for Neumann. His solution takes the breath away. One approaches a dark grotto, radiating gloom, and to each side rises a curved staircase. Advancing, one glimpses the grotto through breaches in the inner wall of the staircase, but from above one is increasingly flooded with light. The goal remains hidden by the curve of the staircase; it is a questing passage from darkness to light.

I spent a term as an undergraduate in Sir James Stirling’s Florey Building at Queen’s College, Oxford. Wedged into a backland plot, it sits like a stranded redbrick spaceship with curved, outwardly sloping flanks supported on concrete props – and it was hell to live in. The tiny bedrooms all looked into a three-sided courtyard open to the river, offering distant views, but an immediate outlook straight into other rooms. Since the glazing for each room was full height and inwardly sloping, one depended for privacy on tinselly blinds fitted into tracks that never worked as smoothly as intended.

One broiled in summer and the underfloor heating guaranteed that one froze in winter. Form triumphed over functionality and it was with huge relief that I managed to switch to more conventional accommodation.