Birmingham School of Architecture

In September 1950, I started at the Birmingham School of Architecture in the purpose built School of Art at Margaret Street, Birmingham. There I spent five years in full-time study with a wonderful group of fellow students, an inspired architectural educator A Douglas Jones as head of school and many very good staff and lecturers. It was the school of F R S Yorke and Freddie Gibberd in the pre war period.


In 1949 I worked as a junior in the office of Ewan Harper, a most kindly ‘old school’ architect, then moved to the lively offices of Jackson and Edmonds. I had started initially as an engineering apprentice at the works at Crewe when they were still building steam locomotives, but I decided quickly that it was not for me.


First Year.


A mixed group of returning service men, overseas students, school leavers and even one woman,  formed our First Year class of about thirty five students. The School was fully recognised by the RIBA and at that time the five year course was of an initial three years leading to Intermediate (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree) then two further years to RIBA final (equivalent to a Master’s degree). Some other Schools were not recognised to Final at that time (Cambridge for example) so students came to us from them to complete their qualification. The award was called a Diploma of Architecture, although of Master’s level, because of the way grants funding worked.


Our year worked ‘in studio’ looked after by Peter Bosanquet. The work was very fundamental and began with a ‘Primitive Hut’ project, simple exercises in colour, form, construction and stability. I distinctly remember Guy Oddie coming into the studio in the then fashion of edwardian style clothes saying ‘to learn about construction you will need a pack of postcards, some cocktail sticks, a real of cotton and some glue!’ – he was not wrong!


There was a very good lecture series on Landscape Design given by a leading practitioner at the time, Sylvia Crowe, and the Studio year ended with an individual study, mine was ‘Architecture and Literature’ something which has interested me ever since. The year concluded with a study visit to Oxford looking at buildings in a ‘Townscape’ context.


Second Year.

Our Studio Master was Graham Winteringham who became a much liked mentor for all of us. He sowed the seeds in questioning the more arrogant aspects of the Modern Movement and to value indigenous architecture. He took us to Hertfordshire to see the cutting edge Schools, to Thaxted (home of Gustav Holst), to the Festival Hall to hear Vaughan-Williams’ ‘Serenade to Music’ (RVW was present!) and at the end of the year to Aarhus in Denmark. Reg Smeaton revealed to us the architectural importance of Bach and the literature of the classics. Further studies were of Colour, The Human Form, and History and design projects, a Rail Station, a town centre study and an interior project together with the essentials of Structures, Building Science and Law. It was altogether a very stimulating year.

Third Year.

The Third Year at that time was equivalent to an undergraduate degree and was also examined by the RIBA as the ‘Intermediate’ stage. The initial programme for the year was undertaken in conjunction with a course on Sociology and Statistics. Professor Charles Madge of Birmingham University gave the Sociology lectures. He was an original member of the ‘Mass-Observation’ project which surveyed the people and life of Bolton from the late 1930s. It was perhaps unique for Architectural students to undertake any such study in the 1950s. Prof Madge was also a well regarded poet in the era of W H Auden (Auden grew up in Birmingham). A design programme was created for us in which Prof Madge was involved and used through the examination of the social sanction of marriage to reveal the close relationship there is between human and community matters and buildings. Our job was to design a Marriage Registry – a very clever and revealing educational task.

A requirement of the RIBA Intermediate was ‘Measured Work’, then the general approach was to measure and draw an historic building, usually Gothic. At the AA and Birmingham schools other more immediate constructions were permitted – a London Bus, a Tiger Moth plane for example. I measured a factory building by architect Rudolf Fränkel, it was the only somewhat Miesian building in Birmingham. Fränkel grew up in Berlin and in the 1920s as a member of the Deutscher Werkbund designed modernist buildings. He came to Britain in 1937 then in 1950 moved to Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. His small factory of the 1940s in Birmingham is now altered beyond recognition. My drawings show as it originally was in 1952.

The Birmingham School of Architecture was pioneering in creating ‘Live Projects’ whereby students prepared the design and details for a building which would actually be built. A client had been found in the form of the Duddeston and Nechells Working Men’s club who wanted new premises. We students worked out a brief with them and we all did designs. My design was selected to be taken forward and was developed with other students. Jim Roberts was appointed to the School staff to supervise the Live Projects including the first ones which were flats for Coventry City then after Duddeston, some Homes for sale by a developer. Subsequently students built a number of these houses with their own hands. Donald Gibson, then Architect/Planner for Coventry was my external examiner.

Fourth Year.

The School was joined at the beginning of our Fourth Year by Freddie Charles (F.W.B. Charles). He became our year Tutor and I subsequently became very friendly with him. He had trained as a ‘White-wall modernist’ Architect and had worked with Gropius and Fry on the Kensal flats. However, he was also a convinced Communist, so as he joined the School, he had done an entry for the Golden Lane competition which was complete with columns and capitals and all the trimmings of Soviet ‘Socialist Realism’. This brought him some hilarity from his students which he took in good heart. The  amazing thing about Freddie was that by applying modernist rationality and functionalism to the study of mediaeval half timbered construction he became the great expert in this field. To move from Modernism to Socialist Realism to Consevationism in one lifetime is remarkable, he was a very intelligent and likeable man.

The Fourth Year Projects were buildings of increasing complexity with supporting courses in Law, Structures, Building Science, Drainage and Word-working machinery. At the same time the Working Man’s club moved through design, working drawings and towards tendering for construction. Around this time Sir Hugh Casson came, and not least Peter Smithson who had completed Hunstanton School and got very annoyed when the students completely removed all furniture from the room and about 10cm above the floor a line labelled ‘Photographic Eye Level’ (see pictures of Hunstanton taken at the time).

Walter Segal’s visit was impressive and he was well ahead of his time in developing self-help housing. His holistic approach, working with the users’ preferences and skills, the materials and methods available and the created community remains an object lesson still. He saw the home as an interactive artefact and would never have been drawn into pursuing one material such as straw bales or rammed earth to inappropriate lengths.

Fifth Year.

Year Five was the final year and took us to the level of a Masters degree. Through the Fifth year the Working Men’s Club was detailed and construction started. Further work on Structural Forms, Colour, History was done with a starting project of a Ballet Theatre near Stratford on Avon, including some work on Acoustics plus various short studies and sketches. A major project was the layout of an area near Warwick for housing. At this point there arose the opportunity of selection for attendance to the Student Conference held at the same time as the UIA Conference in Rotterdam and Delft in the Netherlands. Stanley Sellers and myself were chosen to attend and we decided to submit an extended version of our Warwick Housing Project for submission to the Student section exhibition. Subsequently Stanley and myself went to Delft where we did a design exercise with other international students to design our own house – I was the only one to design my house in an urban location!

In doing this work for Delft I was permitted to do a reduced ‘Thesis’ which was the design for a Restaurant on a lake in Sutton Park near Birmingham.

My external Examiner was the great historian of Industrial Revolution and Victorian architecture, Furneux Jordan. I was awarded the Jackson Travelling Scholarship and went directly from my viva exam onto a train heading for Delft, UIA, Rotterdam, Copenhagen and the Helsingborg Architecture Exhibition. There I bumped into someone who wanted to borrow my photographic exposure meter, he said grandly ‘I am Ernö Goldfinger – you may accompany me round the exhibition’. Many years later I taught his granddaughter!

The Working Man’s Club was completed and occupied into use and subsequently extended.

Attingham Park.

The upper years of the School went to Attingham Park, near Shrewsbury and Coalbrookdale, each year. The house by George Steuart was built in 1785 with a picture gallery added in 1805 with a pioneering iron and glass roof by John Nash. It was a wonderful place for Architectural students, with elegant rooms for talks, music and discussion. The Hall was run by the great environmentalist Sir George Trevelyan. At the end of the drive there was also ‘The Mytton and Mermaid’ . . . The week of talks by cutting edge people, John Bickerdyke, Michael Rix, Terence Lee, Gordon Cullen, Bruce Martin, Oliver Cox etc were inspiring. Industrial Archaeology was just developing so our visits to Coalbrookedale were quite a new thing.


Theatre Design.


My friendship with Stanley Sellers grew as  work on the UIA Student Exhibition Housing project progressed. He introduced me to the Highbury Little Theatre then directed by John and Peta English, where we designed several sets and an exhibition. Later when I was doing National Service in Rheindahlen in West Germany, the HQ had a full size well equipped theatre where the Rhine Army Theatre Club put on productions. I designed several sets there for productions directed by Film Editor David Gladwell (later worked with Lindsay Anderson and Merchant-Ivory), painted by Peter Oakley (later Head of Art, Edge Hill University) and acted by Rod Horne (later with The National Theatre and English National Opera).