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The Gropius Experiment With British Schools : TOWARD A SOCIAL ARCHITECTURE : The Role of School Building in Post-War England by Andrew Saint (Yale University Press: $40; 267 pp.

October 25, 1987|Bevis Hillier | Hillier is an associate editor for Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Why should American readers be interested in British schools built in the 1940s and 50s? For a start, they might feel gratified that some of the British architects' ideas came from the United States--from California in particular.

"Few concrete or timber or prefabricated schools were actually built in Britain before the onset of war," Andrew Saint writes. "Young architects were obliged to cast envious glances at photographs now appearing in the press of light-weight schools designed by Richard Neutra and one or two others in the milder climate and easier economic atmosphere of California, where architectural and educational ideas were coming together in somewhat the same way."

Postwar school building in England was almost a laboratory experiment in applying the philosophy of Walter Gropius and his German design school, the Bauhaus: the principle that architecture was for everyone, that, in Saint's words, "architects should focus their attention not on the rich, with their mansions and banks and clubs, but on the poor and the large-scale housing, schools and community building which flowed from that human objective."

When Gropius came to England in 1934 as a refugee from Nazism, he influenced young architects both by example and by teaching. The example was Impington Village College, a relaxed grouping of classrooms and community space that he designed with British architect Maxwell Fry (who died Sept. 3, 1987).

The teaching was at Liverpool University School of Architecture. At the Architectural Association in London, students were still being asked to design "a house for an admiral on a rocky promontory" as a test piece. In Liverpool, Gropius' views on how architecture could and should serve society made a great impression on a young student, Stirrat Johnson-Marshall, who is the hero of Saint's book.

As deputy architect for the county of Hertfordshire (1945-48) and as chief architect to the Ministry of Education (1948-56), Johnson-Marshall did more than anyone to put Gropianism into practice. As one of the school architects (quoted but not named by Saint) said: "Gropius had his ideas. We had the opportunities."

The postwar schools program put to the test the techniques of prefabrication that Gropius had urged, and showed both their virtues and their limitations. What happened in British school building of the 1940s and 50s stands rather as a classic test case does in the law: something to be referred to, according to one's opinions, as a lustrous example or a horrible warning.

The Butler Education Act of 1944 (nicknamed for a government minister, R. A. Butler, who narrowly missed becoming prime minister 20 years later) guaranteed schooling for all; if children were born, the state promised to educate them up to a certain age.

The postwar baby boom ensured that full advantage would be taken of this provision. Families were being decanted from war-ravaged London into new towns and new estates (building developments) in the counties around London. But money, labor and materials were all in short supply. "How could the meager resources of a near-bankrupt nation be prevented from condemning its children to chicken coops?" Saint asks. Gropius' answer was that brick-on-brick building techniques unchanged since the time of the Pharaohs must be abandoned in favor of prefabrication with a "kit of parts."

Stirrat Johnson-Marshall and his architects designed school buildings not as essays, but as part of a language and vocabulary that could be applied throughout Britain. Many of the architects of the counties had served as officers in World War II. War had taught them how to get an idea into quick production with the help of industry and then use feedback to improve on the original.

In a cold country such as England, prefabricating elements of schools in warm factories had big advantages over building by bricks on a windy site.

Other new ideas were being experimented with, besides prefabrication. The architects wanted to break up long, drab, institutional corridors and to stagger classrooms, or teaching spaces as they called them. Child-size wash basins and toilets were designed. Bright colors were introduced after the monotony of wartime camouflage gray. (In the surviving schools, these colors have often been toned down. With his keen historical sense, Saint observes: "Today a bold splash of color is devoid of meaning. Forty years ago it could stand for hope and a half-forgotten gaiety.")

In Hertfordshire, one third of 1% of building costs went toward murals and sculpture. One school, at Stevenage, acquired a sculpture by Henry Moore that now is probably worth considerably more than the school. Vivid curtains and murals were commissioned; they make the most enjoyable color plates in Saint's book.

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