A school on legs

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Glenthorne school annexe in Skelmersdale was is an imaginative feast. An annexe to the main building, which is rather more orthodox, it rather has the look of a structure put together with left over building materials. 

“IF YOU WOULD LIKE £25 PER WEAK DON’T COME TO SKEM”

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“IF YOU WOULD LIKE £25 PER WEAK DON’T COME TO SKEM”

Fascinating archival evidence suggesting that the  dream of Skelmersdale was being viewed quite cynically by Liverpudlians even in these early, halcyon days of new town development. This image of a protest meeting,  taken by the Liverpool Echo in about 1964, shows disgruntled Skelmersdale workers outside the Department of Employment and Productivity in Liverpool. Notice the deliberate Scouse wit spellingin the banner Their other banner reads:   “WE ONLY WANT A LIVING WAGE NOT A WAGE TO EXIST ON”   Image provided by Ian Henderson. Image enhancement and reclamation by Photo Care, Mount Barker, South Australia.

Why should we protect modernist architecture?

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 PROTECTING PRESTON BUS STATION

Sir John Nash’s Regent Street, Sir John Soane’s Bank of England, the Euston Arch, the art deco Firestone factory and Preston bus station: all, except one, are buildings demolished in the name of efficiency and progress that were said to have outlived their useful purpose, to be impractical and expensive to maintain, and whose loss was regretted forever after.

The exception is Preston bus station, which still stands, just, pending erasure by a huge retail development indistinguishable from huge retail developments elsewhere, which is presented as absolutely essential to the future health and happiness of Preston. Locals and experts alike have urged the preservation of the bus station, but the relevant ministers in this government and the last have turned them down.

You might think that Preston bus station does not belong in this august company – after all, an amusingly dull image of it featured in Martin Parr’s anthology of Boring Postcards – but you would be wrong. It is precisely like the old tyre factory or Soane’s out-of-date bank, in that it is a great work about to be destroyed just before its period comes to be fully appreciated and just when the functional justification for its existence seems weakest.

With its impossibly long horizontal lines, its surprisingly voluptuous curves, its generous waiting areas, it embodies the spirit of its 1960s age, but it faces the same fate as Preston’s Gilbert Scott town hall, long ago lost when out of fashion.

The bus station is not alone. It is part of a company of buildings from the 1960s and 70s that fall victim to a vicious compound of circumstances. They are tough, not obviously charming and carry a label no PR expert would have chosen, of “brutalism”. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated. They are a hard sell. You might be one of many who look at the images on these pages and hate them. But then, many had the same reaction to Victorian piles and Lancashire factories, which have become the heart of urban regeneration.

These works are mostly public buildings, built by local authorities, and by a kind of civic confidence going back to Victorian times that, it would turn out, was in its death throes. They are also socialist. They tend not to maximise the commercial efficiency of their sites, preferring a generosity of space that now makes them vulnerable to property developers who can multiply their profit-making area by factors of two, three, four and more. The modern descendants of the councillors who had these structures built now rush, in an Oedipal spasm, to slay them with the retail and leisure centres that will make their city look like everywhere else.

In theory, the system of listed buildings should protect works over 30 years old that are of historic and architectural interest, also younger buildings that are of exceptional quality and under threat. The usual procedure is that English Heritage makes recommendations and the culture department accepts or rejects them. Yet, either because the relevant minister has turned them down, or because English Heritage has not supported them, many buildings of undoubted interest are lost, threatened or refused listing.

Birmingham central library

Birmingham central library. Photograph: Stephen Cooper/AlamyThey include the bus station, Redcar library, the Get Carter car park in Gateshead, Birmingham central library, and, in London, Pimlico school, the Robin Hood Gardens estate and the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. Meanwhile, the BBC’s relatively insipid Television Centre has been listed, because it inspires fond memories of John Cleese, the early Doctor Who and the Blue Peter dogs.

The listing system is a miraculous thing and does not always duck difficult decisions – Milton Keynes’s 1970s shopping centre is listed, for example. The current listings minister, John Penrose, seems more open-minded than his predecessor, Margaret Hodge, who declared her hostility to most things modern.

But the system has failed with this particular class of buildings. Taken together, their loss would amount to an editing of history, the forgetting and smoothing over of a vital period in British politics and architecture. With, incidentally, the environmental loss of all the energy and material that went into their construction, which now has to be spent again on new buildings and the remains that now have to be sent to landfill.

Now the wheel of time is bringing early Thatcherite monuments up for consideration, most notably the Lloyd’s building and Broadgate in the City of London. The former almost certainly will be listed when its time comes. Broadgate is more complex, as listing risks offending the mighty international business of UBS, and its merit lies in its overall plan rather than individual buildings. But, at its best, listing has always been about asserting value over immediate gain, as a result of which we still have buildings such as the universally admired St Pancras station. If it can recover its nerve, Prestons of the future can be avoided.

Rowan Moore, the Observer

 

Do architects think that they are artists?

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  • Architects design all kinds of buildings. They design schools and skyscrapers. They design hospitals and hotels. They also design churches, train stations and plain old regular houses.
  • Any building that is used by people was probably designed by some architect.
  • Okay then, but what does the word “design” mean? A design is simply a plan. Before constructing a building, an architect needs to draw a plan of the building. Sometimes architects will make a cardboard or plastic model of the building.
  • The building is then built by a construction company which follows the directions of the plans for the building. The architect will closely supervise the construction company to make sure that the building is built according to the plans.
  • Okay then, but but what does an architect do when he or she draws up a plan?
  • Architects have to thnk of many things before they draw up the plans for a building. First they have to think about what the building will be used for. How many people are going to use the building at the same time? What types of activities will these people do in the building?
  • An office building will need lots of small rooms for offices. A school will need many medium-sized rooms for classrooms. And a train station will need one larger room for hundreds of people to pass thru at the same time.
  • All of these building must be built so that they can be used efficiently by everyone who walks through their doors. When architects discuss what the building will be used for, they talk abut the “function” of the building.
  • But the function of a building is just one of many things an architect has to think about when designing a building. Good architects also spend a lot of time making sure a building is safely designed, and making sure the building will last for many years.
  • A building that is not safely designed could catch on fire or fall down on itself.
  • Architects have to design building so that people can escape from the building in an emergency. Of course, some emergencies, such as earthquakes or tornadoes, destroy even the safest buildings.
  • A few years ago an architect had a real surprise when one of the buildings he designed collapsed under the weight of a foot of wet snow. The building was a sports arena with a large, curved roof. The heavy snow put so much pressure on the roof that the roof collapsed. Luckily nobody was in the sports arena at the time.
  • Besides thinking about the function and safety of a building, architecs also spend time creatively thinking about how they want the building to look. Just as a painter decides which paints to put where in a painting, an architect decides where to put the rooms, walls, and open spaces in a building.
  • Just as different painters have different styles of painting, different architects have different styles of designing. One architect might like to use a lot of circles and curves in his or her buildings. Another architect might like to design buildings that look sleek and flat.
  • So architects have to be good artists and good scientists when they design a building. The building must be pleasant to look at, pleasant to work in and strong enough to be safe from most natural disasters.
  • Trying to do all these things at the same time is part of the challenge and excitement of being an architect.

 

  • Phil Shapiro for What Does an Architect Do?
    Copyright 1988

 

More images of Skelmersdale

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Skelmersdale New Town, Lancashire developed in the 1960’s as a Liverpool overspill town after the 2nd World War contains many fine examples of Modernist architecture. Some are shown here. described clockwise from above the piazza outside the Ecumenical Centre; Firbeck estate close by; a walkway in Digmoor estate; more Digmoor housing (two image) and the ubiquitous Skelmersdale Subway (subbie to the locals).

Alan Boyson – Sculptor of Skelmersdale New Town’s Pyramid

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Frozen music – St Anne’s church, central Manchester

I spoke to Alan Boyson on the phone late last year (2011), mainly about his involvement with the Skelmersdale Development Corporation, and the art work he designed for them.

THE SKELMERSDALE PYRAMID

Originally this was one larger pyramid and four small ones.  It was placed above the original entrance to the Concourse Shopping centre in Skelmersdale, and was taken down when a large, glass extension to the building was made.  He felt that the concrete boxed design of the pyramid that he made under contract to the SDC was generally not well liked at the time of its construction, and he himself had wanted to produce something rather more organic in its style.  The pyramid was covered in ceramic tiles But, boxed, and concrete, seemed to suit the general style of Skelmersdale at the time.

Alan Boyson had orignally taken this job, because not everyone had wanted ceramic solutions to sculptural design. He modestly felt that he had no greater status than the abuilders and planners working in Skelmersdale. There was little money available in the 1960s and he would get paid for his basic skills with no extra allowance for his artistic status.

Public response

Boyson suggested that the public response was largely unknown at this time – people are much more vocal about their views nowadays.  The only job where he had the exact response he wanted was the stained glass window in St Anne’s Church as shown above.  Which probably  says something about the expectations of the audience, rather than the quality of the work.