It’s currently half term. While school buildings in England and Wales are mostly empty, save for some dedicated staff and students enjoying extra classes, it seems a good time to explore the architecture of schools dating from the Victorian to the post-war era. Today’s post uses extracts from Education in a Modern World, one of the online workshops which gathers together material from the architectural collections of the RIBA and the V&A.
The influence of architects in the industrial world grew in the Victorian period, with the need to create new buildings to educate a growing population. Mass education required new building types and since then school design has evolved continuously to adapt to sometimes dramatic alterations in government policy and to increasingly higher expectations of students and educators. Architects have been able to innovate to meet these new challenges.
In the late Victorian period the Elementary Education Act of 1870, followed by a series of other education reforms, made education compulsory and free. Subsequently, school boards across England and Wales were established and hundreds of new school buildings were constructed – many of which are still used today, though not all as schools such as the home of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. Queen Anne and Neo-Gothic styles were commonly used for these tall brick buildings, and even now they continue to be a distinctive landmark, often closely linked to the collective memory of their local communities.
The end of the Second World War brought fresh challenges to designers of schools. Building materials were rationed and there was a desperate need to replace or repair bombed buildings. At Cheshunt Junior Mixed and Infants school, lightweight steel trusses were used to reduce the need for scarce steel. Further pressure to build new schools came from the growth in the number of school-aged children and the extension of compulsory education to secondary school level. The expectation was that Britain would be rebuilt to create a better world different to that of the Victorians – and architecture should reflect this explicitly. New methods of construction were used and attempts were made to use prefabrication. Architects began experimenting, leading to novel forms not seen before; Lindsay Drake and Denys Lasdun were inspired by natural forms when designing the layout of Hallfield Primary School. In this new age there was no room for hierarchy. Spaces were to be open and airy and with fewer walls the structure of school buildings became more complex, an example of which can be seen in the space frame truss roof of Rowlett Street Infants School designed by Ernö Goldfinger.
Whilst the material in the workshop doesn’t cover more recent events such as Building Schools for the Future and the funding for its replacement, architects are still meeting the challenges of creating new educational spaces for the next generation. It will be interesting to see if a dominant or national building type emerges, as the material in the collections indicate has happened in the past. This workshop raises certain questions:
- How can architects elevate the quality of education of students?
- What is the ultimate aim of a school building?
- Can architecture transform education?
Want to discover more?
As well as the other online workshops, everyone is welcome to visit the collections in person or see them online at RIBApix and V&A Images. Workshops can be organised for visiting groups as part of the RIBA’s collections-based education programme - contact the Education Curator for more information:
Tel: +44 (0)20 7307 3732