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School builders. (Poor Report).

By Eleanor Curtis. Chichester: john Wiley. 2003. [pounds sterling]50

This is a book destined for the coffee tables of architects who design schools, however educationalists might be more discerning about schools being used solely as a vehicle for architectural rhetoric. Eleanor Curtis is a photographer and this is apparent in the range of beautiful plates which suggest a level of sophistication not evident in the accompanying text. It has the immediacy of a magazine and does not pretend to say anything profound.

The book describes 29 school projects in various countries, the majority of which are from the UK, the US and Germany but also include individual selections from India, Japan, Singapore, Norway and Canada. The architecture is pluralistic and, not surprisingly, the quality varies from the simple elegance of New Modernism to the overworked and overindulged extremes of Post Modernism. The selection process is bound to be seen as inconsistent and arbitrary coming from such diverse cultural sources and traditions. So you question the general assumptions the author makes about the generic issues and approaches to school design. None of these are innovative or original and many are just cliches; issues that have grown tired by repetition. Many of the projects seem to contradict the text, particularly with regard to flexibility. Schools are ordinary buildings with a specific purpose and the design challenge is how to satisfy the practical and the utilitarian changing needs of the teacher and at the same time display the love and dreaming for the child.

But these do not feel like ordinary buildings with a number expressing pretentious, extravagant images without a child's presence as though to include the child would contaminate the architectural purity. These environments are no doubt a stimulus to the designer, but it is questionable whether they are a stimulus to the child. They do not presage a return to the social agenda nor do they carry the same hope and optimism of the elegance and simplicity of the early Hertfordshire schools. The introduction makes a critical comparison with these post-war programmes. It seems to be forgotten that those designs and systems of the late 1950s won international acclaim and engaged more honestly the key virtue propounded as flexibility. Most of the designs in this book are bespoke tailor-made solutions with little regard for flexibility and changing curricular needs.

The senior partner of Perkins and Will is interviewed in the commentary and the three projects by this firm characterize the period covered by Eleanor Curtis, but hardly add credence to the aspirations for design flexibility, particularly Desert View Elementary School with its axial symmetry and classical overtones. These geometries are heavy and ponderous but give shape to a school environment that is always at risk of becoming anarchic and formless in the search for a democratic, liberal and flexible framework.

Four projects are included from Hampshire County Council Architects, of which two representatives are interviewed (disappointingly, most of the plates are in black and white). Hampshire's architectural ambition exploited its relationship with private practice of which offices like Hopkins, Aldington, Cullinan had exceptional influence.

In spite of the superficial and generalized nature of the commentary and the elaborate extremes of many of the projects, the book seems to summarize a period of post-modern architecture during an eclipse of the public realm. It is an interesting social comment at a particular time. However, precise dates, sequence and authorship would have helped comprehension as would more scholarship to present school building in the context of the pluralism of a post-modern era.
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Author:Smith, Colins Stansfield
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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