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.


Visit to the University of Salford Art Collection

I recently spent some time in the store of the University of Salford Art Collection, which has been acquiring contemporary art since the university’s inauguration in the late-1960s, and finding out about its history and future plans from curator and assistant curator Lindsay Taylor and Steph Fletcher.

To read my interview visit http://theshriekingviolets.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/an-education-through-art-university-of.html.


The Turnpike Gallery, Leigh, Greater Manchester

dsc_4427I recently visited and wrote an article looking ahead to the reopening of the Turnpike Gallery in the former mining and mill town of Leigh, a purpose-built gallery and library building with an exterior relief by William Mitchell which opened with an exhibition by Henry Moore in 1971, and fell victim to council cuts before reopening this year with a new programme. Read about the gallery’s history and future at http://theshriekingviolets.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-turnpike-leigh-newold-contemporary.html.


Modern Futures book launch, King’s College London, Wednesday 16 November

modern-futuresI’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.


William Mitchell in Harlow: chapter in Modern Futures book

modern-futuresI’ve written a shortish reflection on my pilgrimage to the ‘sculpture town’ of Harlow, a mid-twentieth century new town in Essex, earlier this year, focusing on the redeveloped Water Gardens in the town centre and the architectural sculptor William Mitchell‘s gargoyle fountains, as a chapter for the new Modern Futures book.

Modern Futures, which is published by Uniformbooks, is edited by Hannah Neate (my Director of Studies) and Ruth Craggs and is an outcome of the Modern Futures research network, which brought together academics, writers, artists, photographers and practitioners for a series of events and workshops around the country exploring questions around changing perceptions of the experience, appreciation and preservation of modern architecture. The book brings together contributions prompted, explored and developed through these events, as well as reflections from a few familiar projects from Manchester such as Angela Connelly and Matthew Steele’s Sacred Suburbs survey and Manchester Modernist Society.

The book can be purchased online for £12 at www.colinsackett.co.uk/modernfutures.php.


Visit to Harlow ‘Sculpture Town’

IMG_0189The work of Pictures for Schools contributing artists Gerda Rubinstein, Betty Rea and Elisabeth Frink in situ, outside the civic centre, in Harlow Old Town, and in the extensive Gibberd Garden, created by Frederick Gibberd, designer of the New Town, on the outskirts of Harlow.IMG_0202IMG_0159IMG_0208IMG_0210IMG_0175


Exhibition visit: Out There: Our Post-War Public Art, Somerset House

William Mitchell maquetteEarlier this year, Historic England announced the listing of a number of major post-war public artworks. The exhibition ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ at London’s Somerset House celebrates this recognition of an important aspect of our social, cultural and architectural history. At the same time, the show offers some necessary context for these works of art, filling in gaps and lapses in our collective memory. As we are reminded throughout the exhibition, prevailing attitudes towards twentieth century built environments have often resulted in publicly owned artworks being damaged, lost, hidden, destroyed or neglected.

The capital is a good starting point for a retrospective on public art, from the myriad artworks commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain to the London County Council’s post-war series of outdoor sculpture shows, where the public were asked what they were thought, given tours and offered sculpture-making demonstrations. Naturally, the post-war New Town of Harlow, with its artworks in housing estates and shopping areas, also features strongly, with an entire room dedicated to ‘sculpture town’. Another room screens a cringeworthily stilted promotional film made to attract people to the town and a new way of life.

Another section is dedicated to the commissioning and purchasing of artworks for schools, with a particular focus on those counties which had strong patronage schemes and a commitment to placing artworks in schools at a county level, and the way in which this was facilitated by the dedication of a particular percentage of school building budgets to the incorporation of art.

Other artefacts include correspondence around the commissioning process and reception of public artworks, often revealing the professional and social ambitions of those involved. These include Victor Pasmore’s comment in a 1977 letter that he conceived his Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee as ‘a sort of temple to raise the quality of a housing estate to the Gods!’. Elsewhere, the use of quotes throughout the show, from artists and architects, highlights the challenges and problems, as well as ideologies and attitudes, around public art, popular culture and the post-war project of changing the masses’ relationship with art. I particularly liked Festival of Britain Director of Architecture Hugh Casson’s comment that rather than ‘high brow’ or ‘low brow’ culture he preferred to think of ‘concertina eyebrows’, which were ‘high here, low there’, prioritising art that was ‘sincere, lively and the best of its kind’.

It was also fascinating to see models and maquettes – among the most enjoyable are miniature versions of William Mitchell’s Corn King and Queen sculptures at Wexham, and a small test piece for his Lee Valley Water Company Mural at Hatfield – as well as descriptions, illustrations and interviews about the ways in which artworks were made and the often new and innovative ways in which materials were put to use.

We are reminded that publicly visible art does not always mean publicly owned art, and that corporations and businesses were among the major commissioners in the post-war period. Most importantly, as well as showing how and where post-war public artworks were commissioned, ‘Out There’ offers some reasons why publicly accessible works of art moved away from monumental statues of grand historic figures to celebrate and depict the general public in this period. Whilst it is suggested that there may have been a number of agendas at work – for example, it is argued that the prominence of sculptures depicting mothers and children in post-war places could have been part of a wider desire to reinforce women’s traditional role as wives and mothers – the exhibition also argues that post-war public art aimed to create a sense of community and spirit in new, rebuilt or broken places, create visual interest and variety and make people think about the places they were in. The conventional narrative is that these lofty ambitions have failed or been forgotten, but the exhibition also reminds us of the places in which public art has been taken to heart, and become an integral part of our post-war places for living, working, shopping and socialising. In this regard we’re brought up-to-date by the inclusion of ongoing campaigns for these artworks to be recognised, retained and appreciated, whether they are led by heritage bodies such as Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society, artists such as Bob and Roberta Smith, or concerned and interested members of the public.

‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ is at Somerset House, London until Sunday 10 April.