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.

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Reflections on Pictures for Schools paper at International Conference of Historical Geographers, London

Artworks in Schools of Every Kind-1My presentation at this year’s International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society was a step up from last year’s RGS-IBG summer conference. Whereas last year I presented a particular aspect of my PhD research on Pictures for Schools in a general session for post-graduates to share their ongoing research, this time I was invited to be one of five speakers contributing to a session themed ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’.

Papers explored research already undertaken as well as projects in their early stages. My Director of Studies, Hannah Neate, chaired the session, linking each paper through pointing out shared themes and overlaps. Papers included Ruth Craggs on returning colonial administrators, co-written with Hannah. This attempted to direct attention away from a focus on the often-told national and domestic story towards wider international motilities and geopolitical shifts and changes, as told through the figure of one administrator, RW Phelps, as part of a bigger picture of people such as architects and planners. Ian R. Cook then spoke engagingly on post-war planners’ organised study tours abroad, and the way in which certain organisations shaped the way in which planners and policy-makers thought about post war development. Heike Jons’ work on the location and development of post-war universities was well-illustrated with maps and diagrammes. Finally, Ben Rogaly presented his ongoing work with Rebecca Taylor on the experiences of strangeness and belonging in post-war new towns, and the way in which communities were unsettled in the 1950s and 1960s due to building and redevelopment and large-scale migration from places such as London to new and expanding towns such as Peterborough.

As ever, it was hard to narrow down the focus of my research to fit a fifteen-minute slot, but I attempted to convey something of the story of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and the way in which they aimed at – and succeeded in – distributing original artworks to not just schools but to county councils, education authorities, universities (including Imperial College, where the session took place!) and teacher training colleges across the country. My presentation was led heavily by the use of visuals and archival finds such as exhibition posters and photographs of visitors to the exhibitions, as well as a selection of representative artworks purchased by educational buyers, offering an opportunity to revisit and make use of material I hadn’t yet highlighted elsewhere. The visuals received particularly positive conference from members of the audience, unsurprisingly, particularly a series of 1960s posters advertising the exhibitions. I was also keen to demonstrate that, although Pictures for Schools was enabled by specific post-war developments such as the post-war school building programme, the formation and support of the Arts Council and Ministry of Education endorsement of the role of the arts in schools, it operated autonomously of the state and was driven by the ideas, values and experience of its founder, the painter and teacher Nan Youngman. I aimed to show how Pictures for Schools benefited particularly from the support and engagement of networks of geographically dispersed artists and organisations Youngman encountered both in her dual career as an educationalist and a painter, and in her social life, and to suggest that I have experienced the value of biographical approaches in historical geographical research.

The panel format for taking questions meant that unfortunately I wasn’t asked any questions in detail – beyond whether there was any measurement of the impact and engagement of the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. I answered that the exhibitions must be understood on more than one level – firstly, engagement with artworks at the exhibitions themselves, by visitors to the exhibitions, which was measured to some extent through questionnaires and voting boxes, and secondly the life of the artworks once they had left the exhibitions, which strangely did not seem to be of interest to the organisers. Some interesting questions were put to the panel, including: whether it was possible to see any specific outcomes of the influences of study tours abroad on post-war British planning; the apparent tensions between a time in Britain’s history generally regarded as being dominated by leftist welfare statism, and the fact that people such as returning colonial administrators were often part of a more old-fashioned establishment and old boys’ network culture; and what motivated and drove individual reformers such as planners, and whether it was political or ideological or otherwise.

The conference was a great chance to hear from people who’d been at the previous talk I did and said I’d made interesting progress, both in my research and presentation and in the discussion of my findings. It was also great to meet researchers, elsewhere at the conference, who were interested in related figures and ideas, from Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire and founder of the county’s village colleges (who employed Youngman as a peripatetic art adviser from 1944-1954, travelling around these colleges as well as other rural schools), an influence highlighted in my presentation, to the Rosc exhibitions in 1960s Ireland, which I was told about by another delegate.

I also enjoyed the plenary from Catherine Hall, historian at UCL, on slavery and freedom, which touched on not just the ways in which the fields of history and historical geography inform and are informed by one another, but showed how historical research can frame and be framed by contemporary issues and discourses, in this case the construction and perception of race in society, though economics, society and culture.

Finally, I was pleased to receive a bursary from the Historical Geography Research Group covering half the price of my ticket, which assisted greatly in covering my conference expenses.


ICHG paper ‘Artworks in schools of every kind: the Pictures for Schools exhibitions 1947-1969’, Monday 6 July

Artworks in Schools of Every Kind-1Next Monday (6 July) I am excited to be talking about my Pictures for Schools research at the International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I will be speaking in the session ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’ (Royal School of Mines Room G05, from 2.15pm), alongside papers on subjects such as new towns and new universities.

For more information about the session, including abstracts, visit http://conference.rgs.org/ICHG/33.


Reflections on presentation at RGS-IBG conference

Natalie Bradbury Pictures for Schools Educating the Aesthetic citizen-1Although I talked about my PhD project at an internal research seminar for my school at UCLan (the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment) earlier this year, the paper I presented at the RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers) annual summer conference was a great opportunity to share my research and get more specialist feedback among researchers in my field – cultural and historical geography.

Despite only attending one day of the three-day conference (partly due to cost and partly so I could use my time in London to spend a day in the Tate Archives either side), which was spread out over the premises of the RGS and Imperial College around Exhibition Road in London, I was able to spend a stimulating and enjoyable day dipping in and out of other sessions. Whether or not they related directly to my research, this gave me a real flavour of the diversity of practitioners, topics and approaches encompassed within geographical research, from hearing about different methodologies such as walking, and how it can inform experiences and understandings of place, to learning more about the study of ‘childhood geographies’. I particularly enjoyed some of the sessions in smaller meeting rooms, which had a more informal feel than those which took place in lecture theatres.

The session I took part in, which was one of three entitled ‘New and emerging research in historical geography’ and organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (my Director of Studies, Dr Hannah Neate, is on the committee of this group), was specifically aimed at researchers at a similar stage to me. It was beneficial to hear and see how other PhD students both went about undertaking research in historical geography, and presenting their research – I was relieved to discover that I was not the only presenter to read from a script, although I did feel that the one paper in my session which was not read out benefited from a more natural and less stilted style, and I hope that I will have the confidence to do this in future without relying on a written-out paper. Another thing I observed was that other presentations dwelt far more on archival research and empirical findings, whereas I really tried to explicitly situate my research in a wider thematic context, in relation to previous or similar research in the field, something which other speakers seemed to focus upon less.

As my presentation was only fifteen minutes long (I think it actually lasted slightly less time than this, maybe 12/13 minutes) I aimed to really focus on one aspect of my research, calling my paper ‘Pictures for Schools: Educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969′. In this, I discussed Pictures for Schools and art education in relation to ideas of taste and aesthetic appreciation. Despite a phone going off for what seemed like ages during my paper (every presenter’s worst nightmare!) people commented that they found my paper really interesting, and I received some perceptive questions. Although I only had five minutes to answer questions, so could not provide answers as fully as I would have liked, they have given me useful points of consideration to bear in mind as I start to write up my research. These included questions about how many children were involved in Pictures for Schools over its lifespan and how the success of the project can be evaluated; whether I had looked at similar schemes such as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Circ’ collection, and notions of engaging with art through schemes such as Pictures for Schools and how this differed from owning art; how Pictures for Schools was linked to or differed from schemes circulating reproductions of artworks and what happened to the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. It was also great to hear from an audience member who had attended one of the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges set up by innovative Director of Education Henry Morris, who I discussed in my presentation – Comberton School – in the 1980s (the school was the last village college to be built, opening in 1960, a year before Morris’ death in 1961). He commented that he didn’t like it at the time, but that since he left the school he has had memories of being surrounded by sculptures and other artworks which gave the impression of a cared-for environment, which was crafted and designed. He asked whether there was a legacy of this kind of approach being taken forward after Morris died. I have also continued conversations started at the conference over email, and have been invited to contribute a collaborative piece of writing for the Visit 1862 research blog, drawing parallels between post-war ideas of taste and nineteenth century ideas of raising standards of taste through exhibitions of design.

All in all the RGS-IBG conference provided a really valuable and useful introduction to presenting at conferences and has given me lots of ideas and pointers to put into practice in future – I look forward to the next time!


Paper: Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969, RGS-IBG conference (New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography), Thursday August 28

Natalie Bradbury Pictures for Schools Educating the Aesthetic citizen-1I will be presenting my first conference paper, entitled Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969, at the Historical Geography Research Group’s session ‘New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography’ at the RGS-IBG annual conference in South Kensington in a couple of weeks. The session, which is one of three for emerging researchers in historical geography to share and get feedback on their work, takes place on Thursday August 28 from 11.10am-12.50pm in the Read lecture theatre, Sherfield building. More information, including my abstract, can be found here.


Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969 (paper at the New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography session, RGS-IBG conference)

I have recently been accepted to do a 15-minute paper in the New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography session, sponsored by the Historical Geography Research Group, at the RGS-IBG summer conference in London at the end of August. Abstract below.

Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969

This paper will show how Pictures for Schools, a scheme which has been the subject of little previous research, aimed to develop the so-called ‘aesthetic citizen’ and emphasised the part that making aesthetically-informed choices could play in the development of a new ‘design for life’ for modern, post-war Britain.

The inter- and post-war years saw an increased emphasis on developing British citizens’ awareness of their power to improve their own environments. Matless (1996) has identified a form of ‘aesthetic citizenship’, prioritising visual education and aesthetic appreciation, which, whilst partly linked to enjoyment, tied into ideas about the responsibilities of the citizen, their role in the reconstruction process and the creation of a future vision of Britain.

Part of the nation’s visual education was the move to make art and design more accessible to the population in the post-war period. One scheme for widening access to original works of art was Pictures for Schools, an annual series of exhibitions of artworks by British artists which took place between 1947 and 1969. Pictures for Schools was aimed explicitly at developing the visual skills and discernment of the next generation of citizens, targeting works for sale to schools and local education authorities and highlighting the individual and social benefits of exposure to original works of art as children grew up.

In this paper I explore how the organisers of Pictures for Schools emphasised the importance of environment on children’s education, prioritising modes of education which encouraged children develop their skills of looking, seeing and describing what was around them; skills they could then take forward into their adult lives as citizens capable of making effective taste judgments and actively shaping their environments.


Practising Historical Geography conference, Preston

This week I attended the Practising Historical Geography one-day conference, which is held annually by the Historical Geography Research Group of the Institute of British Geographers and Royal Geographical Society, the first such event I have attended. This year it took place this year at my home university, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

The conference was a chance for new and established researchers in the field of historical geography to share and discuss what they are working on. It was really good to meet and chat to students from all over the country who have recently started PhDs, on topics ranging from methodist spaces to development journalism. Like me, many of them come from a different academic background but have found themselves within a cultural geography department. It was interesting to hear how they are utilising the tools and theories of cultural geographers, such as writing on space, for their research.

It was telling that the first keynote speaker, too, was not a geographer. Alan Rice is a professor of English and American Studies at UCLan, yet there were overlaps with geography evident in his approach to undertaking, interpreting and articulating historical research, which for Rice sometimes takes the form of tours of Lancaster’s slave trade-related sites, where participants on the tour share and contribute in the making and disseminating of knowledge. Rice’s paper centred on a cultural object, a mummified black slave’s hand, and traced the hand’s existence, use and significance, a set of meanings which has shifted across several sites and centuries. He also touched upon the memorialisation of such sites and stories, which can elevate them from the forgotten status of hidden histories to having a continuing presence and significance, from officially-sanctioned artworks to ‘guerilla’ acts, interventions, reimaginations and tributes.

It was also good to hear from a postgraduate researcher, Rebecca Ford, who is finishing a PhD on the landscape and culture of watercress production and shared her experiences of gaining access to ‘hidden’ archives in a very specialist subject area. She also gave tips for finding and pinpointing material and contacts, even if they may not appear significant to the people who hold them (such as scrapbooks, which show what was important to the person or organisation who compiled them, as in the case of ‘Nan Youngman’s Pictures for Schools file’ which I have been looking at in the University of Reading).

Although I have a lifelong fear of taxidermy (an existential phobia relating to what I see as a particularly gruesome exercise of clinging onto the outer shell of something once all sentient life and therefore meaning/purpose has been removed), Merle Patchett’s workshop on the feather and plumage trade was an interesting way of thinking about the geographic journey of production and networks such as trade, labour, community, use and fashion which surround archival objects. Patchett had brought along an ostrich feather, a bird’s head and a bird’s wing as examples of objects which can reveal more than is first apparent, and reminded us that when we encounter such objects in an archive they are always surrounded by wider histories, drawing on a quote by Gosford and Knowles that suggests artefacts should be approached as being ‘always in a state of becoming’. Although I have been thinking about Pictures for Schools as a scheme more broadly than focusing on specific objects, and thinking about the networks and relationships that exist around the scheme and its social and historical context, and between the scheme and key agents such local education authorities, schools, educators, writers and artists, it reminded me that Pictures for Schools also involved a series of artefacts, in the form of artworks, and that these objects themselves are part of wider trajectories and networks of use and significance whether within the exhibitions, within the London art circuit, within an individual school or as part of a larger council collection.

Also interesting was a workshop by my Director of Studies, Hannah Neate, who took us out of the lecture theatre for a ‘field trip’ to local landmark Preston bus station, a huge piece of modernist architecture, complete with period decor such as clocks, tiles, flooring, fittings and typography, which has been subject to several years of both controversy and celebration in the town, as artists, academics and members of the public have fought a long battle against the council’s intention to demolish the bus station and replace it with a private development of shops as part of a regeneration scheme. The workshop was designed to stimulate thought and discussion about what historical geographers can get from field visits, interviews, conversation and other ethnographic methods, asking what ‘participating’ in a place can add to research and understanding, and considering the role of heritage in research (and vice versa). Although my research has so far been mainly archival, I hope to be able to do oral history interviews and visits with people who were involved in Pictures for Schools, to not just develop my understanding of the scheme and its significance, but to help me gain a wider understanding of the period and context in which it was situated than can be obtained from books and documents.