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On further investigation into CLASP, it turns out that Nottinghamshire County Council have recently undertaken a (unpublished, although available on request) report into the historical significance of CLASP (K. Jugins, Post-War Schools, 2008?).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.


  1. What a nostalgia fest!

    I'm not sure that the octagonal Beeston Community Centre was actually a CLASP project - doesn't Pevsner credit an obscure architect for it?

    And what a shock to see Beeston Library in its not quite prime before all those softwood frames rotted due to lack of maintenance and had to be redone!

  2. Ha! Most of the photos were from here:

    I think you may be right about Beeston Community Centre - certainly looks quite different from the others. Checked the Pevsner editions ('51, '79 and '09) for refs but couldn't find anything - will keep an eye out though.

    Latest update from Notts CC is that they will publish the report in future and that the do of course have database of all their builds but this is for internal use only.

    Organisations and their internal datases are facinating things. I remember going to BBC Nottingham and seeing their database of news stories and contacts - quite useful and different from the information available in public libraries and archives (though not always better of course).

  3. CLASP steel frame construction spotted in John Lewis distribution store:

    Courtesy of Tom Hughes from 2HD

  4. There's also an obvious link between Eric Lyon's SPAN developments and CLASP

  5. Hello. Do you know if the Jugins text is published yet or where I could get a copy? I went to CLASP schools myself in North Notts and would love to learn more about it.

  6. Hello Steve,
    No, I don't think so - probably still held by the County Council's heritage research department. I think I still have a draft somewhere on my machine, so can email you this if you can get in touch:

    chrismatthews82 AT

    Yes would love to see your clasp school. Here's mine:


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