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Crucible of talent

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Leicester School of Architecture began in the city's School of Art 100 years ago. It is now returning to its spiritual home as part of De Montfort's new Faculty of Art and Design.

Compared to the grand old French Ecoles and German Akademien, British architectural education appears a Johnny-come-lately of uncertain provenance.

The Architectural Association began life a mere 150 years ago as an evening school, and by the turn of the century a scatter of universities and art colleges were tentatively beginning the process which would culminate in 1958 with the Oxford Conference's recommendation that five years of full-time higher education should be the normal preparation for qualification as an architect.

The Leicester School of Architecture, which has been celebrating its centenary this year, was among the first on the scene. It began life as part of the city's School of Art and, 100 years later, has finally returned to its spiritual home - as part of De Montfort University's new Faculty of Art and Design, the largest in Europe, with some 5000 students on four sites.

The school's beginnings, needless to say, were rather more modest. The School of Art moved into a purpose-designed building in 1897, and at the turn of the century Mr S P Pick - whose practice was to grow into Pick Everard Keay and Gimson - was the sole, and honorary, instructor in architectural design. Students, all of whom were part-time, also had access to art and craft courses, including building trades, which continued to be taught alongside architecture well into the 1950s - much to their mutual benefit in the opinion of many.

The first full-time course began in 1927, a five-year diploma gained recognition from the riba in 1948, and in 1973 the course was restructured into a three-year cnaa-approved ba degree and two-year diploma - the pattern, of course, still shared with nearly all uk schools.

The bare bones of such a history are boringly predictable, but like any human institution a school of architecture comes to life through the individuals who leave their mark on it. For more than 20 formative years, until his retirement in 1973, the school was led by Bob Howrie. He coped manfully with the 'great fire' of 1962, when an adjoining factory ignited and consumed many student drawings - especially by those noted as reluctant draughtsmen.

Howrie is still fondly remembered as forever grovelling around on his office floor, surrounded by files - at least when he wasn't searching for lost keys - and looking back through the records one marvels at how innocent it all seems. Who of today's hardened academics, beset by module templates and quality assurance, wouldn't relish the simplicity of one of Howrie's early attempts at defining letter grades for projects: 'A = outstanding; B = excellent; C = outstandingly average'?

Beryl Towle, the school's secretary during Howrie's latter years, managed to type - accurately and on time - everything needed to run the place on a manual Remington. Her exemplary administration did, however, have one spectacular lapse when all the examination papers were stolen from her safe: Post-Modern before its time, its impressively secure facade concealed a hardboard back tacked on with panel pins.

Howrie was succeeded by Ben Farmer, an academic and administrator of great finesse, and he was followed by Theo Matoff - or Mastoff as an unfortunate local printer had it in the first (binned) run of the local Society of Architects' newsletter. Matoff lived up to his inadvertent billing, by turns inspiring, enraging and bewildering colleagues and students and, when necessary, vigorously defending his staff against a predatory administration.

A classic 1984 memo assured the director of the polytechnic that his 317 teaching hours strictly excluded tea and coffee breaks. 'The HoS', he noted, 'imbibes continually during the high tension of 'crit' sessions . . . from personally purchased coffee-making equipment', and went on to berate the institution's failure to give proper recognition to the demands, on both students and staff, of studio teaching: 'twas ever thus. Matoff pioneered the school's links with China but left for an early retirement to paint, the discipline he pursued before architecture.

After steadying the ship, his successor George Henderson established a stable platform from which staff and students were encouraged to pursue their personal passions, and himself went on to develop a leading position in architectural education, nationally and internationally. His time as riba Vice President for Education was notable for outreach activities such as 'Architecture for All', designed to introduce architecture to children, and for 'Visions for Cities' initiated by Richard MacCormac. But his most lasting legacy may well be the review of architectural education he set in train under the chairmanship of Sir Colin Stansfield Smith.

Experience gained organising workshops throughout the uk is now feeding into his work as President of the Commonwealth Association of Architects, where he has formed bepic (Built Environment Professions in the Commonwealth) to help embed the United Nation's Habitat Agenda.

Singling out individuals from among the many who pass through an educational organisation is an invidious task and it is often the incidental that lingers longest in the memory. Many a Leicester graduate doubtless remembers the regularly proffered advice of Howrie's deputy, Bob Kinton, to 'mirror your plan' - generally delivered amid a cloud of pipe smoke which today would see him banished to the courtyard.

Those who knew George Roper recognise him as an outstanding teacher of building services, almost an honorary architect, and blessed with a sensibility still rare in the plumbing fraternity.

Stan Sherrington, the reputed manager of 60s singer Mary Hopkins and friend of Paul McCartney, quickly made a mark with students, although his habit of turning up to the annual black tie dinner-dance in a white boiler-suit did not endear him to his more staid colleagues.

Two characters in particular stand out: Richard Leacroft and James Stevens Curl. Leacroft, who retired in 1978, was almost equally gifted as teacher, writer, draughtsman and painter, and his name lives on thanks to several classic books on the

history of theatre design. To students he was an inspiring leader of preliminary studies (years 1 and 2), renowned for his hatred of all new- fangled drawing equipment such as Rapidographs and felt-tip pens.

James Stevens Curl arrived in 1978, and an introductory note in the school's magazine, in his own unmistakable style, informed the unsuspecting students that 'he regards Covent Garden as almost his second home . . . plays the piano, and owns a Bluthner that originally belonged to the leading lady of the Paris Opera'.

James's larger-than-life presence in the lecture theatre, punctilious time-keeping, and fastidiousness about grammar and spelling, were variously to delight and terrify several generations of students before his retirement from teaching last year. He arrived as a senior lecturer with six books to his name, and left as an emeritus professor with another 24.

Education, like agriculture, is a seasonal affair: a larger or smaller crop, a better or less memorable end-of-year show. Continuity and repetition are the norm, and the winds of change which regularly sweep across schools rarely do more than superficial damage. In a similar way students and projects come and go, few living on long in the collective memory.

At Leicester, however, one design thesis was the exception that proves the rule - Ken Shuttleworth's Beaubourg-inspired project of 1982. Shuttleworth, needless to say, was no ordinary student, and his subsequent work with Norman Foster - Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, Carnfield Library, Hong Kong International Airport and several more - add up to an outstanding portfolio by any standards, recognised by the university with an honorary doctorate in 1994.

Shuttleworth's success doubtless owes far more to raw talent than good teaching, but it takes only a cursory glance at the school's high achievers to suggest that the link between Leicester and High-Tech may not be entirely coincidental: Bryan Avery, the three directors of Weston Williamson, Ian Davidson of Lifschutz Davidson, two of Eva Jiricna's senior designers, Jon Tollit and Duncan Webster, not to mention a string of graduates working for Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, Grimshaw, Ritchie, et al.

The pattern suggests there must be something in the air at Leicester, but just what role the school has played in fostering it eludes easy definition. It cannot all have been due to Buckminster Fuller's eight-hour, spirit of '68 open-air lecture, attended by students from all over the country. Institutional influence was clearly minimal too in the case of the earliest of the High-Tech contingent, Bryan Avery, who graduated in 1968, well before the style had

blossomed.

But nor can it be entirely coincidental that, throughout its history, the Leicester School has followed Le Corbusier's advice to 'remain close to matter and materials'. The presence of all those trainee carpenters, painters and plumbers doubtless helped focus the mind on architecture as a practical art, but the ethos persists, long after the trades disappeared into a separate college in the 1960s.

As Foster and Rogers began to make their mark in the 1970s, the emerging, very English style was tailor-made for a school that has generally emphasised the practical over, but rarely at the expense of, the theoretical. Bill Stuart, the diploma course leader in the 1970s, was noted for his encouragement of bold, innovative design, and for his rejection of participation and conservation as 'trendy fashions'.

George Roper played his part, and Gil Lewis, who led the diploma from the mid-80s until two years ago, was famous for his passion for all things technological and new - not least his beloved Apple Mac, of which he was, characteristically, an early owner.

The Leicester version of High-Tech proved very successful in national competitions and students began a tradition of winning prizes which continues to this day. Since systematic records began in the mid-1980s, they have taken 19 firsts, 14 seconds and nine thirds, with more than three dozen other schemes commended or selected for exhibition. The period 1980-81 was prophetic, with the future partners Andy Weston and Chris Williamson taking two firsts - Andy in the Glass and Glazing Federation's competition for the design of a house, Chris with the Inplan Award, in which energy conservation requirements loomed large.

Leicester's two finalists in the 1995 Design Council Parliamentary Competition, sponsored by Thorn Lighting, were featured in the national press and on television, and Ian Griffiths secured a similarly high profile by winning the student magazine Archetype's 'Beacon of Relief', although it has to be said this had more to do with the subject matter - public conveniences around the Millennium Dome and their promotion by the sponsor Armitage Shanks - than with the undoubted originality of the proposal, a tepee- like design.

Concern with energy conservation as opposed to consumption was not an obvious feature of early High-Tech, but was firmly on the school's agenda, directed from the top by deputy head Professor Neil Bowman.

The first part-time, mid-career courses in the uk were offered in 1979, and Bowman's Environmental Design Unit became the school's research focus during the 1980s, eventually growing into today's independent Institute for Energy and Sustainable Development which offers popular MSc courses and is involved in an impressive range of public and private sector research contracts worth £2.5m.

The Leicester School's ethos remains firmly rooted in the practical business of teaching students to make buildings, as a visit to this year's show and a glance at the graduates' enviable employment record amply confirm.

The range and standard of models - physical and computer - are commented on by many visitors, not surprisingly given the fastidious standards promoted by the chief technician, Stuart Berry, and the fact that the school's interests in computing go back to 1979, when Dr Charles Doidge deposited some pet Commodores in the studio, convinced they were going to be important.

Modelling of all kinds should gain further stimulation following a move this summer to new accommodation at the heart of the Faculty of Art and Design, offering easy access to arguably the best-equipped suite of model- making workshops in the country.

Computer-modelling has become a natural part of design development and presentation, and high standards are encouraged by the presence of a self- supporting cad Centre, directed by Rob Ashton. In addition to its staple diet of digital surveys, the centre has developed unique expertise in areas such as computer visualisations of large-scale infrastructure projects.

The school's practical orientation has recently been reinforced by the incorporation of the former Department of Surveying, led by Peter Swallow - who was appointed to the uk's, and as far as anyone knows, the world's, first Chair in Surveying in 1989. Surveying education also began early at Leicester, in the 1950s, and the bias is similarly down-to-earth: establishing a sound base of technical and scientific knowledge still takes priority over the profession's burgeoning concern with management.

Leicester-educated surveyors can be found working all over the world and in many of the uk's most prestigious buildings and organisations: the Royal Palaces, the Palace of Westminster, English Heritage and the National Trust.

Leicester has had a happy knack of being in at the beginning of growth areas, such as building conservation, as well as hanging on to traditions, like part-time education, when they became unfashionable elsewhere. The teaching of conservation began in the early 1970s, and forms a natural meeting ground for the school's architectural and surveying research interests. In 1993 it was consolidated into the Centre for Conservation Studies directed by Dr Judith Roberts, whose work on landscape and garden conservation complements long-established strengths in building pathology and materials.

Throughout the trend to full-time education in the 1950s and 60s, Leicester continued to offer part-time courses, and for a long while students gained exemption from the riba examinations by what became known locally as 'The Howrie Certificate'.

When the Visiting Board realised that a more formal arrangement was desirable, a fully validated seven-year course was established in 1972. At a mere 12 pages, plus one diagram, the course document must surely be a contender for the shortest ever approved by the riba - appropriately enough, given that it was to be run by Dick Short, who now directs the school's widely admired Part 3 courses, established by Grant Pitches.

Robert Gardner, head of the York Centre, greeted the new part-time course as of national significance and when the dust settles after the Stansfield Smith review, Leicester's long experience of part-time education should enable it to respond quickly to new demands at the Part 2 level, as it is now doing to a perceived demand for more design-oriented courses in architectural technology to meet the needs of biat.

Developing a strong research culture has been a major challenge as in most schools which began life in art colleges rather than universities. Leicester's traditional strengths in environmental design and conservation are complemented by well-funded, built environment/education projects.

These include cude (Clients and Users in Design Education), which is being undertaken jointly with Sheffield University and recently held a highly successful international conference (aj 20.5.99), and the development for the Government Funding Council of a system of post-occupancy evaluations of higher education buildings.

The school's expanding international interests are also noteworthy. prasada, directed by Dr Adam Hardy, is attracting a steady stream of uk and overseas postgraduates to work on South Asian architecture, and Dr John Ebohon supervises work on development in Africa.

Richard Weston, like James Curl before him, is a prolific writer and a Sir Banister Fletcher Prize winner. He is continuing with his research on Nordic architecture and his forthcoming book on Jorn Utzon will be the first written with access to Utzon's office archives.

Tim Brindley is well known in architectural as well as sociological circles for his work on the often vexed relationship between architecture and social theory, and Richard Patterson is editing and part-writing what promises to be a provocative special issue of Architectural Design on 'The Tragic in Art and Architecture'.

It has taken the Leicester School a century to get back to where it began and belongs, among other artists, designers and makers, and its central commitment to architecture as the art of making buildings remains undimmed. Whatever surprises the new century may hold, few schools can be better placed to respond.

Richard Weston, George Henderson, Richard Short, Peter Swallow and Grant Pitches contributed to this article.

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