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.
I was pleased to spot some post-war murals in the entrances to some educational buildings on a recent short break in Reykjavik – a city where the sun rarely breaks through a sky filled with low-hanging clouds, yet which is still full of visual interest and colour in the form of colourful and inventive contemporary street art murals.
There are post-war murals in two separate entrances to the technical school in the centre of Reykjavik, in the shadow of grand lava-inspired church Hallgrímskirkja, which towers over the city – through the windows of the school you can see rooms full of mannequins, wigs and hair dressers’ equipment. You can also just about make out some colourful, painted pop-style murals on the walls of the entrance and staircase.
Dating from 1954, and signed Ferró, I assume the mosaics outside are by the Icelandic pop artist Erró, who studied mosaic technique in Italy in the 1950s and apparently had to change his name while living in France due to ‘Ferró”s similarity to the pronunciation of the name of another artist, Ferraud.
A recent large-scale, comic-strip style mural by Erró can be seen in Keflavik airport, but I much prefer the abstract, textural shapes of the technical school mosaics, and the imagery of many hands at work, although sadly tagged over in places, which brighten the entrance ways to an otherwise grey and unremarkable building.
In suburban Reykjavik, meanwhile – next to this 1950s church (one of many quirky and unusual twentieth century churches in suburban Reykjavik) I found a 1964 mosaic attributed to Valtyr in the foyer of Iceland’s Institute of Education. I assume ‘Valtyr’ is the Icelandic geometric abstractionist painter Valtýr Pétursson who, like Erró, studied mosaic technique abroad.
I’m looking forward to attending an informal launch for Modern Futures, for which I’ve written a reflection on William Mitchell’s Harlow water fountains, at King’s College London on Wednesday 16 November from 6.15pm-8pm.
The event is free and will feature brief introductions to the chapters by some of the contributors. Book online at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/modern-futures-book-launch-tickets-28757715100.
I’ve written an appreciation of two sacred and secular 1960s murals by Pictures for Schools contributing artist Steven Sykes, in Coventry Cathedral and New Century Hall in Manchester, for the latest issue of the modernist magazine, which is themed ‘Faith’.
To purchase the magazine (which has inexplicably renamed Steven Sykes ‘David’ in the title) visit www.the-modernist.org/faith.
My latest day trip around the towns, villages and cities of England was to the city of Lincoln, in the north-eastern half of England.
Lincoln is an unusual combination of the hard-edged aesthetics and feel of a northern town (redbrick terraces, austere churches and canals) and the prettiness of a cathedral city (sweeping crescents, cobbles and green spaces), particularly in quaintly named, sloping streets such as the aptly named ‘Steep Hill’. It feels both buzzing and lively – as a market town during the day and a university city by night – and old-fashioned, with an overwhelming sense of geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the country. It’s simultaneously shabby – a strange array of traders make a sparse impression in a market hall that must once have been very grand – and twee, with a scattering of boutique food and clothing shops between the empty shop units.
Lincoln Cathedral, which stands atop the city, has a scale and grandeur which seems completely out of proportion to the provincial city below. Inside, it’s hard not to feel overawed by its scale and presence. I know cathedrals as a genre of buildings are meant to wow you into hushed reverence and give an impression of something much bigger than you (literally, architecturally and spiritually) but Lincoln Cathedral is particularly jaw-dropping. It has the appearance and atmosphere of a huge space yet its smaller chapels also create an impression of intimacy. I was drawn towards the Russell Chantry and the 1950s murals of Duncan Grant who, along with his companion Vanessa Bell, contributed to Pictures for Schools in the early years of the scheme. Grant’s narrative frescoes depict the patron saint of wool workers – and some blue sheep amid the flat country landscape which surrounds Lincoln – at the same time as envisaging Lincoln’s Mediaeval waterfront as a bustling trade centre, pointing towards both the city’s rural location and its past wealth and significance.
I was disappointed to have missed a display of twentieth century artworks from the Methodist Art Collection in the chapter house, but it was interesting to see sketches from the development of the Russell Chantry murals in an accompanying display at the Collection in Lincoln, and to hear that this mid-twentieth century intervention into an ancient, sacred building was deemed inappropriate due to the personal nature of its content (incorporating lithe young men modelled on Grant’s own lover), and hidden away for four decades.
I also caught a glimpse of another mid-twentieth century intervention into the cathedral, on a smaller scale, by another Pictures for Schools contributor, the renowned and innovative embroiderer and teacher Constance Howard. Both Howard’s own embroideries, and that of students associated with her embroidery course at Goldsmiths, were popular at Pictures for Schools. Howard’s Lincoln work is a subtly glittering, textural Mothers’ Union banner depicting a mother and child in a stylised manner that reminded me of the work of Steven Sykes in Coventry and elsewhere. It is unmistakably of its time yet also seems to fit effortlessly and timelessly with the other religious works around it.
I also used the Easter holidays as an opportunity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, Essex, along with the nearby village of Great Bardfield, in the north of the county. The Fry houses works by the group of artists associated with Great Bardfield from the 1930s until the 1960s, including Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge, Sheila Robinson, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman and Walter Hoyle, with the artists famously passing on not just techniques to each other but decorating their homes and furniture. Saffron Walden is fairly close to Cambridge, where Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman lived and socialised and many of the Great Bardfield artists, along with others from across the wider area of East Anglia, were involved with and sold work through Pictures for Schools. The museum was smaller-scale than I expected, but I spotted several of the artworks which were sold at Pictures for Schools, including Sheila Robinson’s print ‘Knife Grinder’, a vivid and personable portrait of a now exotic profession, and the softer ‘Trent Bridge’, which shows her own children sitting on a bridge. One work, a busy cockerel by Michael Rothenstein, was produced for schools in collaboration with the London County Council and another of his works was sold through the School Prints. There were a lot of works depicting the local area in colourful detail, from market squares to country paths, churches and the artists’ homes – although the large, fuzzy shapes of Michael Rothenstein’s more abstract prints were among my favourites – alongside material relating to the artists’ sociable village life in Great Bardfield and the open houses that were held in the artists’ homes and studios.
As well as artworks, there were commercial products, from printed fabrics to book covers and illustrations for books such as the Shell Guides to Britain as well as the quaint Life in an English Village, which depicts places still familiar today such as local shops and the schoolroom. There were also designs for murals in public places such as ships and the Festival of Britain, along with Bawden’s humorous, cartoonish advertisements for companies such as Twinings tea and Fortnum and Mason. Among my favourites were pieces of pottery designed by Bawden and Ravilious and produced by Wedgwood, and pottery produced for P&O liners. I particularly loved a series of plates, bowls, etc themed around the garden and depicting leisurely uses of the garden in light lines and a hazy yellow palette, from weeding and picking produce to lazing under a tree, along with a set using a collection of garden implements to decorative effect.
Although I associate the eastern side of the country, and Essex in particular, with a flat landscape, the countryside around Saffron Walden was surprisingly hilly, with lots of windy country lanes. It felt unlike anywhere else I had visited in England, a small and unrepresentative pocket living up to the olde-worlde image so many people associate with England. Saffron Walden, like many of the villages around it, comprised narrow, slightly tilting, streets of old buildings, painted in pastel colours, many of them adorned with swirling patterned paint and tiles, interspersed with thatched cottages, with the centre dominated by a large church. Directly behind the museum was a large formal park with a walled garden, rose garden, ornamental hedges and greenhouses, one of several well-maintained green spaces, with others including a very large village green. Today, the narrow streets of Saffron Walden are congested with traffic, and the town centre is full of gastropubs, craft shops and clothes boutiques.
It must have been an adventure for Edward Bawden and co, when they moved into their homes without electricity in the 1930s, although they maintained one foot in London, catching the daily bus to London to teach at various art schools. For me, it felt cut off, islanded in the middle of fields. It was all very pleasant, but as a city dweller it all felt too enclosed, too pretty and picturesque, too quiet and idyllic. It felt like looking in from the outside, where one would always remain in relation to that kind of place, the type of place one goes to forget about the real world, and I found myself yearning for the life and variety of the city. Yet, conversely, maybe that is why the work of these artists and the moment in mid-twentieth century life and culture associated with them is still so appealing and in many ways still and timeless. These paintings and prints represent places and buildings that have been there for centuries, and will continue to be there long after we are gone, as life changes to a greater or lesser extent around them.
I also enjoyed this Radio 3 programme about Bawden and Ravilious’ friendship, presented by Alexandra Harris, which was on a couple of months ago.