Reflections on ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’

I’ve just returned from the conference ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’ at Oxford Brookes University. Although I wasn’t invited to speak these themes are key to my own PhD research so I went along to watch and listen.

There were some really interesting papers, including presentations by postgraduates and early career researchers in architectural history, discussing buildings such as health centres, schools, housing and theatres, as well as the discursive environments surrounding them, from the architectural press to RIBA.

Focusing on the half-century between the 1920s and the 1970s the conference set the scene for social and architectural developments in post-war Britain by looking at their roots in the interwar period. For example, Elizabeth Darling discussed the interwar Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, which was regarded as not just a health centre offering advice such as birth control but a social space and centre for the community which would bring people in. She set out one of the key themes of the conference not addressed in the title – education – showing how the centre was part of a wider aim to give people information and education, in order to better themselves.

Jessica Kelly followed this by showing how the architectural press of the 1930s and 1940s navigated between public taste and architects, who as experts and specialists had both privileges and responsibilities. The attitudes of writers in publications such as the Architects Journal and the Architectural Review moved, she explained, from condemnation of public tastes in the 1930s towards a more collaborative approach. This led to a really interesting discussion among the panel and the audience about consumerism, citizenship and class, and the idea that upper and middle-class architects and built environments could play a part in helping working-class people obtain citizenship. Another theme that began to emerge was suburban versus urban life – urban living was promoted as a route to citizenship at a time when the majority of people would have lived suburban lives.

The session on educational spaces was a particular highlight of the conference. Roy Kozlovsky explored the emotional history of school buildings, drawing a link between the family and the home in the post-war period and exploring the complex link between the home and the school, arguing that emotional performances became symbolic landscapes of reconstruction.

I particularly enjoyed Catherine Buke (previously of the Decorated School)’s presentation, which referenced innovations in school building in the United States, Italy and the UK. Cathy drew a distinction between designing for learning versus designing for living, and described how post-war schools aimed to promote learning for living and help their students live in the modern world. She drew links between the school system and the strengthening of democracy and resistance against Fascism at a time when, as she said, ‘a common vocabulary was forged between architecture and education’. I was really interested to hear about Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia infant school in northern Italy, which Cathy described as a democratic project aiming to teach its students how to be critical, ask questions and be active in their environments. Cathy also referenced a number of important UK educationalists, including Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris, with his ideas of using schools to bring art and culture to working-class and rural populations, and Alec Clegg of the West Riding. Through these figures and others Cathy explored the idea that the educational environment is a kind of ‘third teacher’ after the parent and the teacher, and the belief that children should be able to shape their own environments. She showed both buildings and furnishings as an example of the way in which furniture and crockery was desired to be not just functional but beautiful, as part of a consideration of what should be brought inside a school building, and therefore play a part in developing children’s taste.

Another highlight was Louise Campbell’s discussion of post-war educational expansion and the need for universities. She positioned access to university as a right, which had been fought for during the war, and argued that the development of new universities was part of an idealisation of the young. Focusing on the University of Sussex, she explored post-war universities’ aspirations to produce cultivated young people, to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood and to introduce students to high culture (in contrast to Brighton youth and gang culture), at the same time as breaking down traditional subject divisions. She described both how the nature of the welfare state was reflected in buildings, and the ways in which the campus absorbed European influences in its style and appearance.

Otto Saumarez Smith explored the links between the welfare state, modernism and sociology, which had its roots in the inter-war years, and the legacy of this in social democratic approaches in the 1970s. He made an interesting point about the ways in which new towns could be associated with acquisitiveness, affluence and ultimately a move towards conservatism among their inhabitants. Christine Hui-Lan Manley spoke about the picturesque principles underlying the design of Harlow.

A highlight of the conference was Alistair Fair on the development of post-war theatres. He explained that prior to 1939 theatre rarely received public funding, but after the Second World war new theatres were built across the country, often as part of civic centres, and enjoyed public subsidy. The period saw a move away from commercial theatre companies to theatre taking on a more civic function and being regarded as a public amenity, in which the public were encouraged to participate. Alistair contextualised this with reference to political developments, from the 1959 Labour manifesto ‘Leisure for Living’ to Conservative promotion of leisure as giving a sense of purpose and alleviating boredom. He explained that the Arts Council placed culture as part of the welfare state and the development of a ‘gayer and more cultivated population’, where modern citizens enjoyed culture and leisure and culture was balanced against ‘materialist impulses’. This was partly driven by motivations of egalitarianism but also partly, he said, a reaction against American culture and search for appropriate kinds of leisure as people became more affluent. Another interesting link was with suburban growth, which often lacked facilities – collective leisure pursuits could be seen as one way to counter individualist suburban drift.

It was also great to hear about Rosamund West’s research about the London County Council’s patronage of art for residential estates. Rosamund discussed the City of London plan as a discursive event, which was distributed to residents for information and education. She showed some of the types of artworks that were chosen for new estates – themes included neighbours – and some of the ways in which artworks were chosen and received, including the input of residents’ committees in the early years. Interestingly, she highlighted a tension between the Arts Council, which preferred that big names were commissioned, and the LCC, which championed new talent such as students and teachers.

After a day and a half of presentations and discussions which often came back to ideas about taste and the public, Lesley Whitworth’s presentation about the Council of Industrial Design, which developed an index of ‘well-designed’ goods certified with a label, was a fitting way to round off a conference, which took architecture as its starting point but moved beyond that to consider not just space and communities but objects and culture in a broad sense.

Advertisements