Lighthouses: The trials and tribulations of the London Board School

June 1, 2017

“It’s a very cheery thing to come into London by any of these lines which run high and allow you to look down upon the houses like this.”


I thought he was joking, for the view was sordid enough, but he soon explained himself.
“Look at those big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.”


“The board schools.”


“Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future.”

 

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”. (1893).

 

 

 

Introduction

 

The boundary to the school contained four white stone standalone arched gateways, separated by painted black iron railings. Behind these stood two separate buildings in weathered yellow brick, with red bricks to the base edges and around the tall white painted wooden windows that darkly reflected the sun on a bright day, but visually penetrable when it was overcast. The doorways to each building were also in dirty white stone with the word ‘BOYS’ above the entrance to the building to the left, and ‘GIRLS’ on the building to the right. The pitched roof had darkened red clay tiles, tall chimneys, a green copper weather vane and a belltower.


On entering, the muffled commotion of young children in the outside air became an echo of shrill voices. The entrance lobby floor was made of hard red tiles which gave way to cream ceramic bricks below varnished yellowing paint on the walls and a green painted dado rail. There were cloakrooms here which contained rows of splintered wooden benches with a series of metal coat hangers that were rubbery to the touch through the many layers of oily gloss paint that had been applied over the years. An old large metal radiator with peeling cream paint warmed this space. Careful, as the fierce heat of the radiator would give you painful chilblains if you left your hands on them too long. And then to the hall where the sickly sweet smell of disinfected sawdust, used to clean and polish the conker shiny wooden parquet floor, pervaded the space in the morning.


The classrooms were tall and bright. An long oak varnished stick with a metal hook at the end was used to open the top of the windows when the class overheated. A scratched blackboard was prominent at the front of the class, and the chalk squeaked when it was being used.


Outside in the playground the internal facade of the building provided a cliff face of ledges which could be used to traverse one of end of the building to the other without touching the ground. There was one red brick below a window which had weathered leaving a recess in the wall. Coins were used to scratch the dust from this special brick, as playground legend tells that when consumed, it offers powers of strength and speed.

 

 

Background

 

The relationships that one can create with interior space and built form as a child can be formative and sensual, and the resultant memories meaningful. The description above is of my first school, Stillness Primary, in South East London in the 1970s. It was a school constructed in 1904 by the School Board for London, an organisation that existed between 1870 and 1904, before its responsibilities were handed over to the London County Council. The design of the school represents the end of an evolution of school building design developed by the board’s principal architects Edward Robert Robson (1871-1884) and Thomas Jerram Bailey (1884-1904).

 

The School Board for London was formed as a result of William Forster’s 1870 Elementary Education Act through the Liberal Gladstone government. It made schooling for all children between the ages of five and thirteen compulsory for the first time. Until this point, more than half the inhabitants of London were illiterate, and of the potential school population of the city, only 40% had experienced any kind of schooling; be it in church sponsored, charitable institutions, ragged schools or the workhouse. In the large cities this required the creation of municipal school boards to facilitate the provision of new accommodation to meet the conditions of the act. The School Board for London was originally formed of 49 elected members which included a combination of MPs, clergy, the scientist Thomas Huxley, a lay cabinet maker and two prominent feminist activists, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garret Anderson of the Kensington Society. The school boards, along with the hospital boards, were among the first public bodies open to women. Funded by a combination of an allocated increase in local rates applied across the city, and long-term low interest loans, the board managed to construct 469 new schools in London in the 34 years of its existence, representing possibly one of the most ambitious public building programmes the country has ever seen. 


However, the work of the board did not go without political and public scrutiny. There were many discussions, in the debating chambers and the press, over the value of this programme in relation to the burden on ratepayers. And fierce philosophical arguments raged over the nature of the education provided to London children from both a religious and secular perspective. And what effect would schooling have on the working class residents of the city? In 1883, a fear mongering scandal erupted amidst reports of young pupils literally dying of overwork from their studies. Poor George Leach lost his life due to ‘overtaxed brainwork’, according to his doctor, whilst Emily Frost met her end with schoolbooks still in hand from ‘congestion of the brain’. These reports sound farcical now, but they were symptomatic of a middle class anxiety towards the education of the working classes, who they believed only morally and intellectually capable of manual labour. There was also consternation over whether education would have a civilising effect, or that a literate working class would create a hotbed of political action. The trade unionist, and board member from 1873, George Potter, thought the latter:

 

‘The children who go back to the slums from the Board Schools are themselves accomplishing more than Acts of Parliament, missions, and philanthropic crusades can ever hope to do. Already the young race of mother, the girls who have had the benefit of the Education Act, are tidy in their persons, clean in their homes and decent in their language.’ (Allen, 2013).

 

 

Design Development of the Board School

 

Work began in earnest in 1871, with the acquisition of land for schools in the most needed areas of the city. E. R. Robson was appointed head architect of the Board’s Works and General Purpose committee. The first thirty schools were designed through invited competitions, with six different architects competing for each commission. This gave the committee lots of opportunities to review and compare different design strategies, although at this stage the Board had yet to formalise an agreed system of educational delivery. Established teaching methods varied, but all were employed at schools much smaller than those proposed by the Board, which would accommodate more than 1200 children in the larger schools; a necessary economy of scale. 


The first school to be completed was Old Castle Street School, Whitechapel in July 1873, designed by Edward Biven around an open courtyard plan, and arranged according to the traditional English school practice of using older pupil teachers to supplement the principal teachers in a series of connected and shared classrooms. Another opened in the same year, Johnson Street School, Stepney, designed by T. Roger Smith, which was arranged to the Prussian system of teaching which favoured individual classrooms taught by separate teachers, and designed in a neo-gothic style. However, the first school to incorporate many of the characteristics of the typical Board building was the Harwood Road School, Fulham, by Basil Champney. It was designed in the Queen Anne revival style, which Robson considered to be appropriate for a school building, as it offered the opportunity for simple ornamentation, without the trappings of the gothic style which he thought inappropriately referenced religious buildings. 


The Queen Anne style of the English Baroque, was originally renowned as the style of choice for country manor houses during the monarchs reign (1702–1714). It is stylistically recognisable through its use of robust brick form, tall white painted windows, stock bricks with red surrounds, stone detailing and rustication and tall chimneys. It enjoyed a popular revival in the Victorian period, led by architects such as Norman Shaw, who had developed the revival of the style through a number of city buildings such as Lowther Lodge, the headquarters of the London Geographical Society, and new country homes. Robson used Champney’s Harwood Road School project as the starting point for the new form:

 

‘The only really simple brick architecture available as a foundation is that of the time of Jameses, Queen Anne, and the early Georges. The buildings then more nearly approached the spirit of our own time, and are invariably true in the point of construction and workmanlike feeling.‘ (Robson, 1874).

 

Robson took his new role very seriously indeed, and embarked on a serious study of the history of the typology, the findings of which he published in his seminal book on the subject, ‘School Architecture’ (1874). It is a detailed account of the various practices in school design throughout Europe and America, from room layouts to furniture design. It also provides a series of case studies on some of the early Board schools. And so, Robson, and his team of 16 draftsmen set about producing drawings for schools on this basis at a rate of more than two schools per week. The height of the Board schools became one if their most identifiable traits. Often rising through three or four storeys to accommodate large schools on tight urban sites, they rose above the skyline across the Victorian and Georgian urban and suburban landscapes of the city, with only industrial buildings and churches competing in height. But this was not only a practical solution born out of density, but an intentional method of imposing secular moral order on chaotic working class communities, ‘sermons in brick’. A building such as this cannot be ignored, and they would become cornerstones of community life, in contrast to earlier schools which were often small and hidden away as part of the general urban fabric.

 

 

The Contemporary Board School

 

Extension and Refurbishment

 

Stonebridge Primary School in Willesden, might be regarded as a typical, later period board building. Completed in 1900, it was designed by G.E.T. Laurence, under the supervision of T. J. Bailey who replaced Robson as head architect at the board in 1884. It is a building I am very familiar with, as I spent the large part of my RIBA Part 1 practice experience with Southstudio Architects working on proposals for its refurbishment and extension.


It is designed on a symmetrical plan across three floors, with a central school hall with a westerly aspect on each floor. High (4.8 metre) classrooms, are clustered around each hall on the remaining three sides. The typical floorplan of the building is reminiscent of Smith’s layout for Johnson Street, which has proved influential on the future development of the later Board buildings.


Brent Council, the owners of the site originally had the view to demolish the building and replace with a new school and housing scheme of 50 apartments. An active campaign by the local community and The Victorian Society, who reported the building among the ten most in danger in the country, resulted in Stonebridge School achieving Grade II listed status in October 2009. Since then the local authority have embraced the opportunity that the existing building provides. Alternative proposals were developed that retained and extended the building, with the realignment of the surrounding park to accommodate provision for a new terrace of 23 houses, and an apartment building containing 80 units. Consequently, a building that the council originally thought was worthy of demolition, instead became the focus of the planning authority, with views to the building protected and its fabric respected.


Another board school intervention designed by Southstudio was the conversion of Mansfield Place School, a Grade II listed 1874 building by Robson in Kentish Town, to provide a new school for the College Francais Bilingue de Londres (CFBL). The brief called for a range of spaces, from general teaching rooms and highly serviced science classrooms, to acoustically sensitive spaces such as music rooms, resource spaces and library.

 

Like Southstudio, AOC are a London based architectural practice who also specialise in the upgrading and extension of historic school buildings. Their project at the old Monnow Road School board building in Southwark, renamed The Spa School, adapted and enlarged the existing facilities to provide a new specialist school for autistic children. The brick patterned facade of the street elevation of the new teaching block was influenced by the Doge’s palace, after a practice trip to Venice.10 At Southwark Park School, AOC embarked on a comprehensive re-evaluation of the building stock, which included an early 1874 board building and later additions from 1899 and 1910. The building had fallen into significant disrepair after it was closed ten years ago for structural reasons.


"We were interested in continuing the tradition of masonry construction in a contemporary way. It was about trying to tell the story of the history of the building while expressing what is continuing as an efficient way of building schools, but also enjoying the differences between the different bits."

(Tom Coward, AOC).


The central hall spaces of a typical board building acts as the primary method of circulation, which can sometimes be disruptive and noisy, especially for autistic children. AOC designed a new hall building, and the existing halls were filled in to create circulation corridors linking through the whole school site. 


Another recent notable adaptations to London Victorian school buildings include Whitehorse Road School in Thornton Heath, were Hayhurst and Co have designed a major extension to house a new school hall and classrooms. It is clad in gold coloured tiles, Tecu Gold, a copper and aluminium alloy, and the internal spaces have wooden clad angular ceilings, described as ‘responsive roofscape’ by the architect, which reference the roof profiles of the original buildings.

 

 

Demolition

 

At around the same time of the successful campaign to protect Stonebridge, Bonner Street Primary School in Bethnal Green, designed by E. R. Robson and constructed in 1876, was also the subject of development proposals. In this case, the local authority sought to build a new school adjacent to the existing building which was to be demolished to create an outdoor play area. Similarly, a concerted campaign to retain the old school created a lot of public discussion. In this case, there was not pressure to use land for residential development, but the development proposals were driven by a pedagogic insistence that the quality of the existing building did not meet the needs of modern teaching practices. The headteacher of the school, Martin Tune explains:


"To some extent, this is not really a local authority decision - it’s the national curriculum that says things must be taught in certain ways. We need more IT facilities, more floor and library space. We have too many small classrooms, too small a play space." (Gould, 2006).


Creative alternatives were suggested to demolition, including an option to clear the ground floor to create an open play space, with upper levels retained for community use. However, the building was taken down in 2007. The local community organised a public funeral for the building as a symbolic gesture, and to mourn its loss.


In 2010, I had my own experience of engaging with a local campaign to protect an Edwardian board building in my local area. Gordonbrock Primary School, Lewisham, was similar in appearance to the school I went to as a child: of one storey and spread across three key buildings on the site. The school was designed between 1903 and 1904 by T. J. Bailey, though it was not fully completed until 1905 after the School Board for London had been abolished and subsumed into the London County Council. Bailey and his architectural team were transferred to the LCC’s Education Department in 1904. The style of the building is best described by The Builder magazine, which announced on its opening:


"The internal finish of the building is in plaster with salt-glazed dadoes and flat ceilings to the classrooms with open timbered roof, top lighted, to each of the three halls. Externally the buildings are finished with picked stock facings enriched by red brick dressings, the angels quoined, the eaves and baled ends being covered with Broseley tiles. Spacious playgrounds are also provided”.

(The Buildier, March 10, 1906, p.270)

 

The London Borough of Lewisham submitted plans to redevelop the school in 2009. The proposals included the demolition of two of the Edwardian school buildings and replacement with a new block that would contain a larger school hall and an increase in classroom numbers. The subtext for this plan was the lack of school places in the borough, which facilitated the need to either build new schools, or increase the intake of existing facilities. I led a campaign group of local residents and parents who objected to the proposals. We challenged the legality of the planning application, successfully as Lewisham had cut corners in the planning process, and employed an architect to draw up alternative proposals for the enlargement of the school that retained all of the existing heritage buildings. A listed building application in this case, was unsuccessful.


New additions were proposed between and alongside the original buildings in a clear rhythm, providing the extra classrooms required. One of the primary rational drivers for the demolition of the old buildings was that the size of the classrooms no longer meet current guidelines. So a new internal structural support would allow the existing roof to be kept and allow the classrooms to extend deeper into the buildings. This would allow the existing classrooms to retain the benefits of high ceilings and large windows whilst now meeting the current accommodation requirement in terms of usable floor space.


Whilst our proposals gained a lot of interest, including from Joan Ruddock, the MP for Lewisham and Deptford, and Local Councillors, the politics of the situation at Lewisham made it impossible to change tack, and the buildings were demolished in 2010 after a revised planning application. The development team at the council had already spent £250,000 on consultants fees to get the proposals this far. There would have been significant egg on project directors faces to agree to an about turn. And the development partner, Boygues, the large French construction company, were already appointed and pulling strings. They had no desire to retain the existing buildings, as their supply chains were in place to provide block and render construction at a relatively cheap cost.

 

Commercial interests have also been at play at another more recent controversial proposal to develop the site of Marlborough School in Chelsea (1877, E. R. Robson). The local authority, Chelsea and Kensington, have arranged a land exchange and sale of the site to the John Lewis Partnership, who had previously owned the adjacent Clearings Site as part of their operation. Planning proposals to demolish the school and rebuild as a mixed used development, including a new school building integrated retail and offices, were consented in 2013. Again local campaigners were vociferous in their opposition to the proposals but the deal had been done. The building was demolished in 2015 and the project is now on site.


These are just some examples of demolished London Board Schools that have been replaced at the insistence of local authorities over the past ten years. Others include: George Mitchell School in Leyton, taken down last year to be replaced by a larger secondary school building; likewise Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in King’s Cross was replaced with a new school building in 2012 and in the same year, the Board school at Lough Road was demolished to accommodate a new Pupil Referal Unit. There are many other examples.

 

 

The Politics of Board School Redevelopment

 

Of course, there are a multitude of complicated reasons why London Board buildings might be selected for redevelopment. Often the personalities, preoccupations and ambitions of the governors, local government politicians and officers play a role. But it is useful to identify some key drivers and enablers.


In 2004, the Labour Government launched its flagship, Building Schools for The Future (BSF) programe, a keystone of Tony Blair’s New Labour manifesto promise to deliver significant improvements to school facilities across the country. In 2007 this was coupled with the Primary Capital Programme, (PCP) which specifically focussed on the provision of Primary School facilities. The funding for these capital projects was driven by Private Finance Initiative (PFI) economic policy and public-private partnerships (PPP).  In practice, this meant that local authorities, under pressure to raise infrastructure standards, were permitted to enter into financial arrangements with private developers, primarily large multinational construction companies. In effect this entailed selling the school building to the private contractor on a long leasehold, who will develop and upgrade the site with an agreement to rent it back to the Local Authority during the period of the leasehold. This puts a lot of control in the hands of the contractor, who essentially employs their own architect, and is able to lead the design process in a way that suits them financially. They want buildings that are easy to construct, and cheap to maintain. And they want the added financial investment of a full construction project, rather than a potentially complex refurbishment or extension. English Heritage flagged up this problem in 2007, with the publication of their report ‘School Buildings: The State of Knowledge”:

 

"The principal area of threat is to school buildings in the state sector. Government renewal programmes will, if fully implemented, effect the greatest change in the building stock since the Board-school era and the post-war construction boom. The sums of money are large (with £5.8 billion of capital expenditure in 2006-07 rising to a projected £8 billion in 2010- 11) as is the scale of ambition, the professed aim being to provide every schoolchild with a ‘21st Century environment’ within 15 years." (Smith, 2007)

 

In addition to the funding programme, a new set of education guidelines were created for all new development. A benchmark and set of codes for drafting plans which created new minimum limits for classroom and hall sizes as well as associated ancillary spaces. This essentially rendered every London Board school as inadequate. And every new school building would be designed according to the core scheme of the design guidelines.


However, with a change of elected government in 2010, one of the first acts of the new Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was to abolish both the BSF and PCP initiatives. Which might have provided a reprieve for historic school buildings, but has only created another problem. The policies of post financial crash austerity measures that were imposed on Local Authorities by David Cameron’s coalition government resulted in the situation where councils were struggling to meet their own budgets. The solution was to extend the practice of selling off public assets, that was initially encouraged by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009. Since then, a significant number of Victorian Board buildings have been sold to private investors or charitable organisations. Some have been refurbished and reused, while others, such as John Lewis’s Marlborough School site, have been taken down.

 

 

Adaptive Reuse of the Board Building

 

London School Board buildings have proved very adept at accommodating a range of different uses. One of the most common has been conversion to residential apartment buildings, a trend that has progressed since the mid-nineties. I was fortunate enough to live in one last year, a conversion of the old Blackheath Road School building in Greenwich, which was adapted to residential use in 1997. The living area fully occupied the space of one of the original classrooms, with the lounge reaching the full 5 metre height of the room, with an open plan mezzanine above providing space for the main bedroom. A smaller bedroom kitchen and bathroom were contained between the split levels of the mezzanine. It was certainly compact, but at the same time open and bright. And there is satisfaction to be gained from occupying a space that has had an alternative history attached to it. And particularly so for me personally, as it is the school that my Grandfather attended as a child.


"The architectural practice of Zaha Hadid have their London headquarters at Bowling Green Lane School, an early board building designed by Robson in 1874. From initially occupying just one room in the mid eighties, the firm has expanded to occupy the entire building. Stories of Zaha using a tanoy system to communicate to her staff are now legendary. The building was Grade II listed in 1991:
This is one example of the very exclusive group of surviving London Board schools from E R Robson’s famous early period when he actually did the designing, and possibly one where he was helped by the influential and talented private architect J J Stevenson." (English Heritage, 1991)

 

It is interesting that a designer known for her form based approach to creating contemporary architecture should have found it practical and beneficial to work from a building so rooted in the history of the city. Perhaps it is the contrast she enjoyed, or perhaps the internal spaces are just well suited for the practice of architecture.

 

Elsewhere in London, board buildings have found other diverse uses. Lower Chapman Street School in Tower Hamlets, another early Robson design from 1874-5, has been reinvented as a the Darul Ummar Community Centre: a mosque and islamic centre, including Jamiatul Ummah, and independent boys secondary school. It is a very well used community hub, with an estimated 6,000 local people using its facilities on a daily basis.


And nearby in the heart of Shoreditch, Rochelle Street School, a listed board building designed by Bailey and constructed in 1899, has recently been converted into the Rochelle School, an art space, restaurant and workspace for a wide variety of creative start-up companies: architects, designers, producers, publishers, graphic designers, media fashion brands and artists. The refurbishment of the building, planned by Quinn Architects who also work from the building, was essentially a light touch repair job, whitewashing, rewiring and the creation of adaptable and connected units that were ready for fit out. The retention of the halls and other areas as communal spaces, emphasises the importance of collaboration:


"The idea of community can be terribly important, the sense that you are part of a bigger whole, of being connected and of belonging. The fact that you have a relationship with people every day from coming to a building, sharing facilities, being part of a bigger picture is always more interesting." (Laurence Quinn, Architect, Quinn Architects, Rochelle Centre).


Another cultural space has been carved out of an early board building is the Jerwood Space in Southwark. The original Orange Street School was presented as one of the case studies in Robson’s ‘School Architecture’. The building sits in a dense urban grain, and so Robson opted to set the school back from the road in order to maximise the availability of light to the windows and playground. A covered walkway from the entrance to what has now been renamed Union Street, still acts as the entrance to Jerwood Gallery and restaurant, whilst the school building itself has been converted into dance and theatre rehearsal spaces. A new roof extension designed by Murkenbeck + Partners is clad in corten with timber louvre, set back slightly from the existing facade to avoid rust deposits on the brickwork. A glazed upper storey brings considerable light into the new rehearsal space. 

 

 

The Philosophy of Rentention

 

The experience of running a local campaign to prevent the demolition of an historic school building brought me into contact with many arguments against retention. All of them were sound, measurable, and practical responses. The buildings do not meet the needs for contemporary teaching, and are no longer fit for purpose. The buildings are not energy efficient or sustainable. It is cheaper to demolish a building and rebuild than it is to refurbish as old buildings are complicated and have hidden costs. However, there are also a number of irrational and subjective arguments for demolition and replacement: we shouldn’t live in the past, we shouldn’t value buildings over people, a building should be designed to fit its function.


It is this last statement, that of the functional requirement of a building, that brings the discussion into the realms of architectural theory. Functional modernism has been the dominant theoretical position of the last century. It is still a useful position to take in practice, as it presents the design of a building and its experience of use as quantifiable and objective. Does the building enable the programme? And how efficiently does it achieve this? This is the reasoning of project managers, consultants, planners and contractors. An evidence based system of option appraisal when making the decision to refurbish or rebuild. In addition, the political impetus behind a project often comes with significant vested interests and in-balances of power. The introduction of the private sector, with the motivation of economic investment and profit into public sector development can’t be underestimated. Its a relatively new pressure on the decision making process and another impact of neoliberal economic practice.


But there are other considerations that reside in the qualitative realm of subjective decision making. For instance the cultural meaning of an urban object, and its resonance in collective memory. This is more complicated to measure adequately, but not impossible. Although it is very hard to make an argument for when pitted against organised facts represented by numbers that stack up.

 

In the post-modern era of cultural and urban theoretical discussion, one of the first to specifically talk about the importance of the historic fabric was Aldo Rossi. His book, The Architecture of The City (1966), gave permission for designers and urban planners to see the city beyond its functional impetus again. Instead it is a gradual accumulation of urban artefacts over time, which have a use that can be independent of its form, and that can change the shape and meaning of the city. The book is a well researched critique of the functional methodology associated with the modernist city.


"One can say that the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated with objects and places. The city is the locus of the collective memory." (Rossi, 1966)


How important is this idea of memory? Involvement in a local heritage campaign brought me into contact with lots of people who were willing to share and record their memories of a building. A modernist critique throws these aside as feeble musings rooted in nostalgia, rather than progressive discussion that will feed rational decision-making. Before the demolition of Bonner Primary School, a film was made in which past pupils and teachers walked around the empty building sharing their memories of the place.


"The thing that struck me I think, when we first came into this room was the size of the windows and the lightness. We lived in a very small house just over the way in Mile End with quite pokey rooms and very small windows and to come into this room with these great bright windows made such an impact on me." (School Days: Bonner Primary School London, 2007).


This memory is the expression of a real and tangible urban experience that relates not just to one place, but a comparison between contrasting places that were a formative part of this persons life. And if you multiply these experiences by the hundreds of thousands of children that have attended the school throughout its existence, then there is the potential to view this particular place as a profound creator of urban understanding. In Rossi’s terms, school buildings such as these can be regarded as Locus. Urban artefacts that have a key role in influencing culture and meaning in a specific locality. 

 

The memory of place is fed by two primary responses. The first is the sensual experience of being in a place. The phenomenological reaction to a building, that is created through the body’s senses reacting and interpreting the interiority of the space. This delivers a reflection of an internalised experience of architecture that is only understood through the limits of our interpretative senses. Secondly, it is the accumulation of narrative attached a particular place. This could be a communal or personal narrative, but our linguistic understanding is essentially an individual or collaborative construct that attaches layers of meaning over time. One might relate it to poetry, as Gaston Bachelard has done in his phenomenological treatise of architecture, The Poetics of Space (1958): ‘We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.’ Which in itself is a poetic way of describing how history is really just a creative narrative, that he argues is conjured and attached to specific places and buildings. So when we demolish a building, we remove a store of cultural narrative. Which is perhaps why, when a historic school building is taken down, the subsequent funeral was not merely a publicity stunt, but a genuine opportunity to mourn the loss of urban poetry.


As well as the importance of collective memory and phenomenology, we might also consider the relevance of formal legibility. The board school buildings carry a clear and understood urban branding. As Holmes exclaims to Watson in the often used quote: ‘big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.’ 20 To observe a board school building is to understand both its function, and urban meaning instantly. And this understanding has accumulated and consolidated through generations. Perhaps a symptom of a functional approach to design has been the creation of an architecture that no longer expresses its function through its external formal appearance, which is a relevant irony. And this condition is amplified when the supply chains of the major contractors are all being utilised to construct buildings across a range of typologies. School extensions which could be doctors surgeries, which could be care homes, which could be community centres, which could be local council offices. The result is a potential problem of urban legibility. The formal coding of buildings no longer seems important, so long as the building works for its initially allotted function, that it is cheap to construct, and that there is a reasonable profit to be made from its creation and maintenance. These are now the primary conditions that need to exist before a public building project can move forward.

 

However, we live in a city where the ambiguity of urban meaning can also create interesting fusions. When a power station becomes an art gallery, then there are complicated semiotic games at play which resonate. And likewise, when a school building becomes a place of residence, or a centre for creative business or religious activity then we can derive a double meaning from the object. A building can accumulate new meaning, whilst still retaining the original interpretation. Narratives are created which enhance the quality of urbanism beyond that of pure function.


Robert Venturi discussed such matters in another important contribution to post-functional discussions of architectural theory, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). He proposed an urbanism that embraces the complexity of historical form, by welcoming the problems, and exploiting the uncertainties of these objects.


"I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function." (Venturi, 1966)


He suggests that clarity of function, as realised in a series of very specific programmatic responses to specific conditions, results in a bland over simplification of form that is ultimately separated from the people that use it. And that the best urbanism is understood and appreciated when it has accumulated a complicated palimpsest of meaning. 

 

 

Conclusion

 

I would suggest that meaning is practically derived through memory, and that a fully sensual experience of place, together with an associated narrative, is the best way to attach meaning. Older public buildings were constructed at a time when commercial interests were not so pervasive, and when the semiotics of a building were considered alongside its function. It stands to reason that these are more relevant to the transferal of narrative than the majority of contemporary public buildings, partly through their age, but also through their realisation. So when an adult reflects on the memories associated with a formative building from their childhood: the touch, the smell, the taste, and sound and the light and colour.; then this is not merely nostalgic whimsy but a relevant reflection on urbanism.


When left to purely quantitative means of judging the value of a school building: the relative costs, spatial qualities, sustainable credentials, hall capacity; we are in serious danger of producing inferior architecture as there is so much more that is not being considered. Rowan Moore comments on the results of this recent period of public construction in his well read book, Why We Build (2012):


"The relation of architecture to money goes beyond the question of construction budgets. Buildings and cities reflect the priorities of the economic regimes that shape them......In Britain, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a rare combination was achieved of profligacy and meanness. Both government and business were willing to spend very large sums on building, but reluctant to invest in the forethought and detail - good design, in short - that might have enabled these sums to be spent well."(Moore, 2012).


There is a sad consensus, that with some notable exceptions, the quality of the new school buildings that we have experienced through the PFI model has been considerably inferior to the traditionally funded public projects of the past. It is a problem that can be squarely bolted to the economic conditions of the era. A global neoliberal approach that favours economic growth over cultural diversity. It is a problem that can only be addressed politically, but meanwhile it leaves the good architect in the uncomfortable position of having to play along to put food on the table, whilst harping from the sidelines.

 

In my architectural education I have spent some time investigating the theoretical implications of why we design, who we design for, and the consequences of our design interventions. Whilst this information does not help me refine the quality of my layouts, manner of the facades that I draw, or fineness of the details, it does give me a conceptual framework for understanding my own motivations. I hope this will filter through into the buildings to which I contribute in my subsequent career as an architect.


What I have realised is that I have not entered this profession primarily motivated by a desire to make things work better, although I trust this will be a side effect of my endeavours, but my priority is to add to the complexity of the urban narrative in a way that extends the layer of meaning where significant meaning already exists. And to create new meaning where there was none to begin with. Architecture is more relevant than just function, and if we are to fully contribute towards a healthy city, we have to rigorously defend the culture of the city from economic and political influences that are merely looking to mine base material and leave it dry. A city is an active economic entity but it is not a horde to plunder.


The Board school buildings are perhaps among the most culturally important urban artefacts that the capital has ever created. Their prolific construction over a short space of time has not only created uncountable layers of cultural meaning, but they have changed the way we view class, opportunity and equality in the city. Their appearance, driven by the Elementary Education Act of 1870, has facilitated more than five generations of artists, writers, musicians, designers, entrepreneurs, politicians, economists and philosophers - who would not have had an opportunity to rise if it weren’t for the provision of compulsory education for all. And just as relevantly, they are fine and robust buildings, that are adaptable to a range of different uses, the perfect example of a complex urban narrative adding to the value of the city.

 

 

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