Friday, 21 August 2009

CLASP: Nottingham modernism as heritage?

The award winning Nottinghamshire CLASP infants school in Milan, 1960.

On further investigation into CLASP, it turns out that Nottinghamshire County Council have recently undertaken a (unpublished, although available on request) report into the historical significance of CLASP (K. Jugins, Post-War Schools, 2008?). It is only a historical introduction but the contents and academic references are useful nonetheless. It is also interesting that such buildings are now considered important as 'heritage' and there are perhaps some parallels here with the English Heritage/Park Hill debacle in Sheffield - although it is hoped that this won't be a similar balls up. Unfortunately the report does lack a definitive glossary of all CLASP buildings in the county and understandably this would be a huge undertaking on both time and resources. It is estimated that there were at least 50 such buildings going up in the county between 1957-1970 (M. Dudek Architecture of Schools: The New Learning, London, 2006, p. 79). The effort to document, accurately classify and criticise is perhaps worth a mind numbing PhD thesis or even an entire academic career spent in social isolation.

Charles and Ray Eames: Similar prefabraicted consumer modernism - more individually stylish but less easily reproducible than CLASP

So what the bloody hell am I doing meddling in such things? I'll give four half baked reasons: Well, firstly I admit that until recently I was ignorant of their significance despite the fact that most of my educational and recreational life has been lived in these community buildings; nursery, infants, juniors, secondary, college, fire station, leisure centre, library, clinic, miners welfare, social services, council offices, old people's home and community centres. Nearly everything from a failing a 5 metre swimming badge to learning how to smoke at the youth club. In the sleave notes to Donkeys 92-97, Tindersticks dedicated 'For Those' to the CLASP Gedling Miners Welfare.

One of the principle features of CLASP schools is that they were built as community centres; alongside leisure centres and close to the town centre. Some of the architects were even imagining that this could bring about the end of compulsory education - people would just pop in when they needed a bit of education. Secondly, I think that some of these CLASP structures, when 'In skillful hands... can produce buildings of considerable architectural distinction' (C. Ward, British School Buildings, 1976, p.x). I can't pretend that they are all beautiful either, but for the most part they work well and are true to their social context. They are definatley not aspirational lifestyle living bollocks either - they have a function for a local community. There were also a number of mistakes - from small faults such as leaky roofs and noise to more troubling problems of fire hazard and asbestos. Thirdly, it is still open to debate as to which post-war CLASP buildings will be saved or bulldozed and the report specified that this would depend largely on critical acclaim (such as Pevsner) and their current rate of use within the community. So some half-wit with a blog might just have an influence! Or maybe not. Finally, I work as a lowly in-house graphic designer at a technical college and so you could say that this is a small attempt to redress the social stigma of pubic sector design.

The CLASP frame, Toot Hill Comprehensive, Bingham, Notts.

Before I retrace my school years and then undergo some CLASP psychogeography further afield (although I’m slightly concerned by the prospect of wondering around school buildings with a camera) it is perhaps a good idea to give some definition as to what it is I'm banging on about. The story goes like this: in 1944 the age at which children had to go to school was raised to 15, which not only defined the contemporary split between primary and secondary education but was also designed to tackle the problem of a lack of skilled labour. This meant that there was a glut of state schools which was made worse by the post war baby boom. The problem was particularly urgent in Hertfordshire where the county architects soon discovered that the best way to tackle this was through conveyor belt prefabrication, because reinforced concrete was 'literally sinking' both schools and budgets (K. Perkins, Post-War Schools, p.8). In the late 1950s Gibson, Lacy and Swain became county architects at Nottinghamshire, where there was a similar shortage of schools. This was made more complex by the affects of mining subsidence, which would physically shake buildings - often resulting in cracked brickwork and smashed windows. In order to solve this problem Gibson and co modified their prefabricated steel frames with loaded springs. In short, many of Nottinghamshire's buildings are built like Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout. Fantastic. To some easily excited designers, this was preparation for future generations who would travel to the moon:

"The task and responsibility of the new men will be to build in sufficient quantity and therefore at an industrial rate, schools first, but not just school buildings but schools for real children, and children who later will travel to the moon..."
(Jean Prouve, ‘Prefabrication’,, in V, Huber & J. Steinegger (eds), 'Structures and Elements', (London, 1971), sited in M. Dudek, Architecture of Schools: The New Learning Environments, London, 2006, p. 79).

Local Authority building consortia

This prefabricated system (with or without the springs) was called CLASP, which not only denoted a type of structure, but also a way of co-operatively pooling resources among local authorities. In the 1960s the results were award wining and the design was repeated over many parts of the country, with some local authorities developing their own building systems from the CLASP template. In terms of fabric they were built with either concrete panels, red tiles, brick, timber or as a mixture. The choice of cladding was often related to the pre-existing local vernacular, such as the folk weaved tile hanging, which could ‘move like the scales of a fish when the building itself moved’ (Seaborne & Lowe The English School: Its Architecture and Organisation Vol II, 1977, p. 163). There are also five different types of CLASP builds, as the design developed between the 1950s and the late 1980s; from modernist to more traditional tastes. Today, CLASP is now going under the name of SCAPE and there appears to be a variety of different structures still using the steel frame system; curved roof, pitched, flat etc. They look like well thought out technological structures (certainly better than this) but so far I am struggling to find the aesthetic sensibilities that were present in the late 50s to the early 80s. Also, many new (and recently some of the old) schools are fenced off from local communities in fear of you know what. Have the links with Eames and the brave new world been sadly lost to the IKEA & Daily Mail generation? I hope I'm wrong, but I have a sneaky feeling that design based on a social ethos, no matter how humble, has been on the back foot for the past thirty years.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A County Divided: County Hall Nottinghamshire

N. B. Following article is an ongoing research project on CLASP design. Comments and references welcome. Sorry for the footnote links not working correctly.

Fig 1. Two County Halls bonding ‘awkwardly’. While the modernist half relates to the riverbank, the neo Georgian predecessor seems more in-tune with the South.

Politically Nottinghamshire is a divided county and this is in someway reflected in the architecture of County Hall. The Trent generally marks the severing point between those more inclined to vote Labour or Tory; in general terms, north and west are the more collectivist coal fields and in the south and east are a conservative cluster of agricultural villages. Elections are historically decided in the West Midlands, although the East Midlands and particularly Nottinghamshire is also a region where polling day has been closely fought. More interestingly it is also a home to moderates - those on either side of the political divide who have sympathies with their counterparts. Historically, the economics of consumer manufacturing in Nottingham was of course very different from the heavy industries of the North, or the small industrial specialties of London.[i]

For free market fundamentalists or militant socialists, Nottingham has an unfavorable reputation. The Tory Ken Clarke's pro Europe views have landed him unfavorable headlines in the right wing press. While the local miners' history of strike-breaking has often overshadowed their will to support non militant action and negotiation.
[ii] Although the reputation of moderates doesn't always illicit such antagonistic responses; A J Mundella and the lace and hosiery workers were pioneers of arbitration and class conciliation.[iii]

Fig 2. County Hall part I by E Vincent Harris: Civic conservatism and difficult to photograph.

County Hall also comes in two parts and it is worth remembering at this point how Labour became a stronger party in the new Nottinghamshire coalfields after the nationalisation of mines reduced the influence of the neighboring aristocracy in the post war period.[iv] The first part of the Hall is the grand, incomplete and piecemeal 1930s NeoGeorgian grandeur by Emanuel Vincent Harris, who was famous for his inter-war civic gestures; Sheffield City Hall, Leeds Civic Hall, Bristol County Hall and Manchester Central Library. The second part of Nottingham County Hall is the modest and functional prefabricated steel and concrete post-war modernism. Elaine Harwood rightly states that these two buildings ‘bond awkwardly',[v] while the architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner is in no doubt about his own preference, describing the Georgian half as "dead as mutton", while he praises the 1960s extension.[vi].

Fig 3. County Hall part I by E Vincent Harris: Statue of
homoerotic miners.

Fig 4. County Hall part I by E Vincent Harris: The entrance, built with Portland Stone and Winchester brick, which gives it an appearance more often associated with the south of England

Fig 5. County Hall part II by CLASP: Overhead walkways – built for the camera.

The modernist half was designed by The Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) and County Architects, this particular CLASP design predates the widely acclaimed York University Building. To some, post war British state school building was among the best in Europe - the most famous example being Hunstanton Comprehensive in Norfolk. Nottinghamshire CLASP buildings won RIBA awards, and were noted for schools such as New Ollerton and Sutton in Ashfield, which were spring loaded in order to withstand mining subsidence and to function as community centers. These designs were later adopted in other mining areas and countries prone to earthquakes.[vii] Considered by critics as a non-idealistic consumer modernism (how very Nottingham),[viii] these CLASP designs won the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale in 1960.[ix] Similar to the prefabs of Charles and Ray Eames, although less individually stylish, they were more easily reproducible - almost straight off the conveyor belt. Is this what Caruso St John are referring to with Nottingham Contemporary’s concrete panels? Maybe not but the fact that production line modernism is built in Nottingham is significant. It must be said that aesthetics of these schools are somewhat modest and over the years they have been poorly subsidised in comparison to their private rivals (Nottingham High or Loughborough Endowed) but they have always been socially and educationally more vital to local communities.[x]

Fig 6. County Hall part II by CLASP: Prefabricated concrete and steel frame, which was replicated throughout Nottinghamshire’s public sector buildings; such as fire stations, schools and offices.

Fig 7. County Hall part II by CLASP: Similar to Alva Alto’s Scandinavian modernism.

[i] P. Hall, ‘England circa 1900’, in H. C. Darby, (ed.), A New Historical Geography of England After 1600 (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 374 – 446.

[ii] Andrew Taylor, The NUM and British Politics 1969 – 1995 (London, 2005) p.191.

[iii] W. H. G. Armytage, 'A. J. Mundella as Vice-President of the Council, and the Schools Question, 1880-1885', in The English Historical Review, Vol. 63, No. 246 (London, 1948), pp. 52-82.

[iv] Robert J. Waller., The Dukeries Transformed : The Social and Political Development of a Twentieth Century Coalfield (Oxford, 1983).

[v] E. Harwood, Nottingham, (London, 2008), p. 161

[vi] N. Pevsner & E. Williamson, Nottinghamshire, (London, 1979), p. 248.

[vii] A. Blanc, M. McEvoy and R. Plank, Architecture and Construction in Steel (London, 1993), p.170

[viii] N. Whitely, Rayner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, (London, 2003) p. 152.

[ix] The Independent, 11th January 2002, Henry Swain,

[x] Pevsner, Nottinghamshire, p. 75.