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Architecture Lessons for Gove

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Woodlea Primary School, Bordon

Woodlea Primary School, Bordon

I hope Michael Gove has been reading the obituaries of Colin Stansfield Smith, Hampshire’s county architect between 1974 and 1993. Firmly supported by the leader of his (conservative) County Council, he made the quality of design of schools, libraries, fire stations and other public buildings something to be proud of.

A couple of years ago Gove summoned up the spectre of architectural gluttons feasting at the table of government patronage, in particular on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Since then he has welcomed the first of many planned standardised school buildings, under the Sunesis programme which ‘focuses on delivering standard whole building designs, to a fixed turnkey cost. This cuts out a huge amount of waste so that projects can be delivered very quickly and at a very low price.’  The result, it seems, is a building closely resembling an out-of-town retail unit. Not much sign of the ‘grace and beauty’ that, only last month, Gove considered essential to new housing – or at least new housing on Green Belt land.

Stansfield Smith had style and charisma (in his youth he was both a county cricketer and an actor) but, far more important, he believed in the highest possible quality in the public built environment. During the nearly twenty years that he worked there, Hampshire became synonymous with admirable, but anything but standardised, school architecture.

Even with the demise of many local authority architects’ offices under Thatcher, Stansfield Smith managed, by fast footwork, force of personality and the continued support of his local political masters, to draw in some of the best architectural practices to work as consultants to his own dedicated teams. Some of the outstanding examples of schools built under the BSF programme have come from practitioners – in the offices of Ted Cullinan, Michael Hopkins, Richard MacCormac, Peter Aldington – who learned their trade in Hampshire.

Comments on “Architecture Lessons for Gove”

  1. Every local authority needs an architect like Sir Colin Stansfield Smith who will protect the public interest. Michael Gove’s sheds are fine for sheep but baaaaaaaaaad for teachers and students who need as a basic minimum -sun light and air to feed and nurture their creative energies.

    How many research findings does it take to state the bleeding obvious? Good quality buildings are a good investment- they perform better and people perform better in them. They engender a sense of pride and belonging, security and safety.

    The Amnesis programme of prefabricated sheds is a travesty- a waste of public funding and guaranteed to fail. Whilst public schools cherish their classes the divide between haves and have nots deepens. Cheap and fast school building will be a cash cow for some and simple shortcomings like the inability to hear the teacher will exhaust teachers and stress students.

    The James Report clearly stated that there was a need for an intelligent client. Instead of appointing people like Sir Colin Stansfield Smith Gove has chosen to line the coffers of large contracting organisations who are forced to milk the project to compensate for the costly procurement process.

    The issue is not so much about the amount of money invested in education but the manner in which it is squandered. As long as architects are laughed out of the driving seat as iconoclasts Gove will continue to short change our young people. At the Distinctive Learning Conference at St Martin in the Fields on 20 March, Sir Colin Stansfield Smith spoke with great passion and knowledge about high quality learning environments. Perhaps his wise words, which were recorded by Eric Parry Architects, could be an opportunity for Gove to demonstrate that he can learn from history and make changes to his thinking and policy so that we can have hope and be inspired.

    Would the NHS appoint a lay person or accountant to make decisions on brain surgery? Of course not so why do we rely on inappropriately skilled people to deliver our building programme? It is time to stop using architects as external decorators but to build from the strong body of knowledge developed by the profession since the start of the 20th Century with pivotal architects such as Mary Medd who was the brains behind the Hertfordshire Schools Programme and Sir Colin Stansfield Smith who championed talent and led the Hampshire Schools. Until every local authority appoints an intelligent client – an architect of the calibre of Sir Colin, able to protect the interest of the public purse- there is little prospect of an effective or efficient school buildings programme to take our country into the competitive global economy of the 21st century.

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