In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
He said, ‘Don’t sit with your back to the fire, it’ll make you feel sick’.
He pointed at a picture of John Major on a 1992 election leaflet and said ‘Kirsty, this is a very bad man’.
He said ‘You don’t get taught by buildings’.
The latter piece of advice was delivered during the fascinating and rather interminable process of visiting local secondary schools in preparation for moving up to ‘big school’. In my day, and in the place in which I had my day, competition for secondary school places was rather less cut-throat than it appears to be now, in the places where I have fetched up. My parents didn’t need to move house, temporarily attend church, or embark upon a sustained campaign of civic bribery in order to allow me to choose between several state schools, none of which boasted ‘gang-related violence’ among their GCSE subjects. Having discounted the local selective grammar school with the insouciance of an eleven-year-old in possession of Political Views, I was dithering between two comprehensives. They faced each other across a road and I imagine my life would be fairly similar (well, with the rather huge exception of not meeting the excellent people I met there) had I gone to the other one.
I went to the school that hadn’t recently been rebuilt, because you don’t get taught by buildings.
Looking back, I could pinpoint that as the moment I started to conceive a great affection for down-at-heel educational buildings. I say I could. I could just as well describe the hours I spent as a kid hanging around the FE college where my parents both worked, which was crammed with ugly blocks of classrooms, workshops and labs, and which was tremendous fun to investigate. I remember the greyish, sunbleached block my dad taught in, how it smelled of wood dust, how irregularly-shaped bits of MDF lay around in the corridors. I remember the art rooms, the way that paint was just scuffed into the floor tiles because, well, they were the art rooms. What else do you do with dripped paint in an art room?
The different FE college that I attended was, perhaps, the most formative of all these experiences. Exeter College has, since I went to it, added several new, shiny buildings to its various sites. The big rectangular block I was mostly taught in still stands, though. You can see it from the train. Architecturally, it’s basically a multistory car park to put students in. It was in there that I was introduced to mitosis, the Munich Putsch, and Marxism (well, as it pertained to Media Studies, at least). Each of its (nine? ten?) floors had its own distinct character, like the Film Studies floor that was all Black Paper On The Walls And Stills From Tarkovsky Films, and the sunlit heights of the Physics labs. In the third floor ladies’ toilets we followed a tantalising graffiti exchange – a girl thought she might be gay, another encouraged her to explore her feelings, they wrote kindly to each other and then more flirtatiously, they arranged to meet… and whatever happened they didn’t pen us an update, of course.
Maybe it’s through all this that I came to associate education with a certain scruffiness, a certain lino-and-blue-gloss-paint, dust-and-sugar-paper aesthetic. See, ancient hallowed halls of learning or finely-crafted glass and steel have their charms, I know. It is good to have architectural beauty in one’s intellectual life. But there’s something to be said, I think, for the charms of the upper floors of Exeter College’s big old block, on a cold day, when the wind whistles through the cracks in the windowframes. Or the subterranean offices in Oxford’s English faculty. Or the yellow brick corridors in King’s College London. In a lot of important ways, you don’t get taught by buildings, but that isn’t the whole story.
Last year, due to the vagaries of university scheduling, I ended up teaching in an old science classroom, over to the other side of my university’s (admittedly small) campus from the Arts building. The block it was in had probably been built in the 70s or early 80s, after which (from the look of things) not much tender loving care had been taken of it. Paint peeled. The linoleum floors were scuffed and cracked. The classroom was a too-long expanse of cupboards, made of glass and cheap dark-stained wood and filled with dust. We rarely encountered anyone else in the block except for builders, who were apparently using the ground floor to store bits of scaffolding. The students hated it. More than one complained about it in their end-of-year feedback forms. I thought it was great.
Instead of a projector, the room had a TV on a wheeled trolley. That’s like catnip to those of us who love crap educational buildings. I was strongly tempted to show the students Look Around You.
I have recently moved to Oxford, which is exciting. I studied here as an undergraduate, and it was largely a pretty nice experience. Anyway, I was pootling around the centre the other day, getting my bearings again. I’d expected the place to have changed more than it has – I guess I’ve become used to the shifting economy of east London, where you find a good place and then they hike the rent and it closes, and everything else is a damn popup – and it was nice to walk around, although Oxford out of term time always feels a bit weird. It’s very pretty, of course, and that prettiness is replicated all over the place – on stands of postcards, on the sides of buses. In the public loos by the Covered Market there was a picture of the Radcliffe Camera with the inevitable quote from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ superimposed on it:
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening
Leaving aside the following objections – a) in the picture the Rad Cam was in bright sunshine, and b) it is not topped with a spire so much as a sort of nipple – these two lines are, for me, kind of a problem I’ve sometimes felt in Oxford. I’m not sure I entirely trust a place that still looks romantic on a wet Thursday in October. It’s like the way that some people distrust people with charisma, only this isn’t because I think it’s a façade or in some way dishonest. The problem is that Oxford really is that beautiful, even in the rain. It really is that clever and that impressive, and its history is the history of prestige and intellect and not, to be frank, letting in people like me. I was intimidated as an undergrad by all that dreaming old Cotswold stone, and what it meant – bastion of culture, hive of minds, effortless buoy of the middle England tourist industry. A decade on, I still find it a bit easier to look at the Engineering faculty than at any of Magdalen. I’m conditioned to look for the scruffy and the ridiculous. I think I got through my undergraduate matriculation at least in part on the hilarious ugliness of the heads on the wall outside the Sheldonian. Have you ever looked at them? That is some terrible carving, right there.
The heads in the picture above are not even the goofiest ones. They’re just the goofiest ones I could find a fair-use photo of.
I am working in the English Faculty, in the St Cross Building and – as mentioned above – I rather like it. It’s a nice level of mid-century modernist wood-and-yellow-lino, and I find its lack of spires and quads quite comforting. And it’s 50 this year! I occasionally find myself thinking about those 1960s architects, and what it meant to build something like that, here: what was it supposed to be? A juxtaposition, or a slap in the face? The 1960s are somewhat later than my usual area of expertise, and I’m pretty much entirely ignorant about architecture, but in my next-century hindsight it feels like the latter: a fairly understandable postwar desire to fling the past as far away as possible. It’s kind of ironic, perhaps, how much buildings like this one – and its much, much crappier cousins – have become part of my own history, bound up in the same sort of nostalgia that sometimes leads me to hungoverly eat tins of ravioli. It sort of makes me, in the Oxford I walked through today – the one that was pretty much entirely one big walking tour – an anachronism, still clinging for comfort to a sort of educational architecture that nobody wants to put on a tote bag. The Rad Cam’s a brand, and a good one too, whereas the St Cross building needs an anniversary for even those who care about its makers to recognise it.
And then I think: you’re thinking about it wrong.
The St Cross Building was a form of showing off, just as the Rad Cam was. It was designed by important architects and built out of good materials, and it shouted ‘We’re new, we’re modern, we’re important’ from the top of its flat rooftops. The big tower in Exeter College may not have such an illustrious pedigree, but it’s showing off, too: why build something that tall if you’re not showing off? There was plenty of room, when it was built, to build something lower and wider. You can’t pull apart function and display, not really. These places were all built to do something and to say something, too.
So, perhaps I shouldn’t be intimidated by Christ Church. Or at least, no more intimidated than I am by the English Faculty Library. Or perhaps I should just run up and down Tom Tower, shouting ‘This university let me in once and it’s done it again! Whahaha!’ At any rate, I should recognise my intimidated feelings for what they are: artefacts of the privileged space and point in time that I inhabit, when I can stare a perfectly pleasant gift horse in the mouth and say ‘But I’m scared of its teeth‘.
Some years ago the local news ran a survey to find ‘the most hated building in the South West’. Most of the answers given were the usual sort of thing – car parks, shopping centres. ‘Apart,’ the newsreader said to her colleague, ‘from the one person who nominated Poundbury!’
The newsreaders laughed. They showed quaint footage of the old-fashioned-looking houses and shops of Poundbury, Prince Charles’s ‘experimental new town’ in Dorset, built to feel like a country village.
We looked at my father. He had a defiant expression on his face.
My father fucking hates Poundbury.