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Schools Pioneer

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A new biography of Mary Medd is a timely reminder of the interdependence of architecture, education and children’s welfare in the modern age, writes Yasmin Shariff

Michael Gove should stop reinventing the wheel and get a history lesson on architecture and education by reading Catherine Burke’s newly published book on Mary Medd, née Crowley. In A Life in Education and Architecture, Gove will learn about the remarkable work of a socially committed Quaker family who were at the forefront of the reformation of child welfare and school building design.  

This very unassuming hardback publication with Medd’s portrait on the cover is as much an account of her personal life as it is of the evolving ideas of 20th century pedagogy and welfare of the child. Medd was well travelled, talented and extremely committed. She won the fiercely competitive and much coveted final year prize at the Architectural Association in 1932 and became an associate member of the RIBA in 1934.

Her first major commission was a group of three houses in Sewell’s Orchard, Tewin, on the outskirts of Welwyn Garden City. Completed in 1936, these were published a year later in FRS Yorkes’ book The Modern House in England, alongside designs by Breuer, Yorke, Goldfinger, Lubetkin, Lescaze, Chermayeff and others. 

Despite her talent and passion, Medd almost gave up her career as an architect when she turned 40

Early in her career she worked with eminent architects such as Ernö Goldfinger, Maxwell Fry and Elizabeth Scott. But despite her talent and passion, she almost gave up her career as an architect when she turned 40 after she was invited to join the newly formed Hertfordshire Architects’ Department.

In 1949, aged 42, she married David Medd, whom she first met in Goldfinger’s office in 1938. Medd quickly disappeared in the shadow of her husband until Burke hauled her from obscurity with this well-written and detailed study.

The research for the book draws heavily on the diaries and notebooks Medd kept from the age of about 10 to a few days before she died, aged 97, in 2005. In addition to these diaries, Medd kept notes on books she read, conferences she attended and places she visited. Medd loved to draw and the diaries and notebooks are full of sketches. This remarkable legacy provides an almost unbroken record for over 80 years and has been carefully archived by the Institute of Education. The author, Catherine Burke, a senior lecturer in history of education at the University of Cambridge, has only scratched the surface of the material. (Not being an architect, Burke hadn’t heard of Medd until she read her obituary in The Guardian in June 2005 on a train back from a visit to a nursery school in Nottingham.) 

Throughout the first few chapters of the book Medd’s father, Ralph Crowley, features as a central figure with a strong commitment to the social welfare of children. He travelled widely and was working at the pioneering Bradford School Board when she was born in 1907. As Medical Superintendent of Schools, he tackled high infant mortality by introducing preventative measures to ward off the spread of infectious diseases and improve the health of the population. Burke describes how Crowley’s father initiated an experiment in feeding school children and this laid the basis of child welfare service in UK schools. He was greatly influenced by developments in the United States. Following Ralph’s recruitment to the Board of Education in London in 1908, the family moved to the newly founded Garden City in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Burke makes the connections between Ebenezer Howard and the ideas about nature, health and hygiene central to the Garden City movement and the family’s move to Welwyn Garden City in 1920 and then, in 1936, into the house in Tewin that Medd designed soon after she graduated from the AA.

Burke outlines Medd’s adventure through education in pioneering establishments

In these early chapters Burke outlines Medd’s adventure through education in pioneering establishments including the strictly vegetarian St Christopher’s school in Letchworth, steeped in Theosophical ideas and The Farmhouse School in Great Missenden, run by Isabel Fry, whose philosophy focused on visual methods of teaching and ‘learning by doing’. Isabel Fry was associated with a progressive movement of teachers, academics and advisers who were influenced by the theories and practices of John Dewey in the USA and Maria Montessori in Europe. Medd left The Farmhouse School for Bedales – and Burke devotes a whole chapter to this co-educational secondary school, where Medd felt she was with like-minded spirits. There is a dramatic photograph of the interior of the Memorial Library, a two-storey timber structure completed just as Medd arrived in 1921. The hall was a regular haunt for Medd as she pursued her passion for drawing. It is a shame there are no sketches from this time published in the book to give an insight into how she perceived space or structure in this dramatic place.

The account of Medd’s training at the AA from 1927 to 1932 focuses on the study tours to Scandinavia and Holland led by FR Yerbury, who was AA secretary and also a council member of the Anglo-Swedish society. At the time, the AA was considered to be the most prestigious architectural school in the country, with an international reputation. There is scant information on the student projects she worked on, with the exception of her final year thesis: ‘An Education Centre for Arts and Sciences’.

Ironically, her main entrée into a serious professional career in architecture was literally through the kitchen

Despite having won the final year prize and built the remarkable Modernist houses in Tewin, it seems, reading between the lines, that Medd was finding it difficult to break into a male-dominated profession. Ironically, her main entrée into a serious professional career in architecture was literally through the kitchen. Burke recounts that in 1941 John Newson, the Chief Education Officer, visited the house in Tewin where she was sunbathing and invited Medd to work for Hertfordshire County Council in the Education Department. There was an urgent need to help schools make arrangements for feeding schoolchildren. 

When the Hertfordshire Architects’ Department was set up after the war, Charles Herbert Aslin was appointed as the chief architect and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall his deputy. Medd was asked to join the department but here Burke reveals that Medd considered giving up architecture to become a housemistress at Bedales. Burke is silent on the reasons why a young, talented and knowledgeable woman should consider such a dramatic move – was it that she felt sidelined because she was a woman? Medd finally agreed to join the group in 1946 after a six-month break in Norway, where she celebrated her 40th birthday. Three years later she had married David Medd and joined him in the Architects and Building Branch (A&BB) at the Ministry of Education and gradually disappeared into her husband’s shadow.

The schools were built on very limited budgets but they were high on aspiration and ambition

Burke describes the educational context of the celebrated 1950s A&BB and Hertfordshire schools, including international influences from Holland, Scandinavia and America, where ideas about child development, welfare and education went hand-in-hand with buildings designed to provide fresh air, sun, light and a connection with nature and art. Medd’s child-centric philosophy is very well articulated, together with detailed accounts of some of the key thinking and development in planning, structure, use of materials, furniture layouts, colour, texture and the relationship with outdoor spaces. Usefully, there is an appendix listing projects and project architects. These schools were built at a time of great austerity immediately after the World War II, when bricks had to be reserved for the school building programme. The schools were built on very limited budgets but they were high on aspiration and ambition. Many received great acclaim with study tours, publications, films and exhibitions and articles in several languages. 

The Medds’ expertise was much sought-after internationally and they travelled extensively throughout their married lives. Burke gives an account of some of these trips, including holidays, conferences and study tours. America and the Scandinavian countries and Holland continue to play a significant role in developing and testing their ideas.

Medd left the Ministry of Education in 1972 after a disagreement over plans for a new primary school. Burke explains succinctly the tensions which had developed over child-centred planning and more traditional models of education – a change which was adopted by a series of education secretaries, beginning with Margret Thatcher in 1970. Medd continued to work on schools after her ‘retirement’ from the ministry and helped plan primary schools in Wales.

The book is best summarised by a quotation from a speech that was given in 1993 by the Medds on the occasion of their being honoured by the University of Lincoln: ‘Architecture and education are not two separate subjects.’

Yasmin Shariff is a director at Dennis Sharp Architects and a specialist in school design

Book: A Life in Education and Architecture: Mary Beaumont Medd, by Catherine Burke (Ashgate)

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