Building Back Better?…No, Really.

Building Back Better?…No, Really.

Author Richard Bingham continues his series of articles for the Brighton Society on some of the city’s lesser known landmarks. In his last article Richard guided us around the late Victorian splendours of St Luke’s School, Queen’s Park. This time, he focuses on another school with an illustrious past – Carden School in Hollingbury.

A new beginning

By the time it opened in 1948, Carden Junior School was already famous. So famous that the newsreel cameras of Pathé arrived to film the first pupils walking into the school.

Just five days earlier, George Tomlinson MP, Minister of Education, had travelled down from his office in Whitehall to formally declare Carden Junior open. In the ceremony, Mr Tomlinson used a golden key to open the doors of the school. Symbolically, he was unlocking the future, not only of Carden’s first pupils but of Britain as a whole.

The first new school to be completed in Britain following the end of the Second World War, Carden heralded a national renaissance.

An urgent need for new schools

Although 5,000 schools were damaged or destroyed during the war, virtually no new schools had been built.1Dent, H, A Century of Growth in English Education: 1870-1970, Prentice Hall Press, 1970Moreover, the post-war “baby boom” was already well under way.

Then as now, population growth was especially evident in the south east of England. In Brighton a far-sighted Corporation (or what we would now call the Council) had been purchasing large tracts of Downland to the north of the town. After hostilities had ceased, they started to build on this land, and the first fruits of their labour were the brand new housing estates of Bevendean, Coldean and Hollingbury. Progress on Hollingbury was rapid. No fewer than 500 new houses had been built by November 1949. 2“Brighton is building new suburbs”, Evening Argus, 9 November 1949By March the following year, that number had already doubled to 1,000. 3“Hollingbury’s 1,000th home brings praise”, Sussex Daily News 24 March 1950 For the new families moving in, the need for a new school was obvious. At nearby Patcham Junior, 52 children were squeezed into one classroom.4Personal memories: Patcham Junior Jubilee

Carden School: the site and the buildings

Both St Luke’s and Carden were built to serve Brighton’s new and growing suburbs. In St Luke’s case, that suburb consisted of private speculative housing built around Queen’s Park. In the case of Carden, the suburb of Hollingbury was built by the Corporation.

Both schools were also built on hills.  At Carden, the complexity this caused added significantly to the costs. Concrete Quarterly magazine estimated the cost of building the school on a level site would have been £126,000. The need to level parts of the site, to dig deeper foundations and to build more substantial retaining walls meant that the actual cost was 25% higher, at £157,566. 5Concrete Quarterly, Number 5, January 1949

In contrast to St Luke’s, which is a “triple decker” or three storey school, Carden Junior is for the most part single storey. Partly, this was because Carden’s greenfield site afforded more space than at the Queen’s Park school. It was also, however, a reflection of educational thinking at the time.

Post-war school architects reacted against the monumental appearance of Victorian schools like St Luke’s. They rejected the massing that, they believed, weighed too heavily on young and tender shoulders. In 1938, for example, an architect proclaimed, “Monumentalism should have no place in school today”. 6Quoted in Saint, A, Toward a Social Architecture, Yale University Press, 1987Like many other architects, he was pursuing a more child-friendly scale.

Figure 1. Plan of the Junior Wing of Carden Junior School, The Keep, ACC 7952/6, January 1947

The first part of Carden to be completed – the Junior Wing on the corner of County Oak Avenue and Carden Avenue – went a long way in achieving this ideal. The wing is single storey throughout. Its plan takes the form of a rough cross shape (Figure 1). The crossbar bisecting the long spinal corridor accommodates the headteacher’s office and changing rooms on the right. To the left, meanwhile, the crossbar contains a large assembly hall. After the crossing, the corridor continues to the school’s kitchens and dining room at the top, where hot meals were provided for every pupil. The layout of the school remains substantially the same today.

Figure 2. Detail of the “finger plan” of six classrooms. The shaded area to the right of each classroom indicates the outdoor area for each class. In good weather, these areas became outdoor classrooms. The Keep, ACC 7952/6, January 1947

At the bottom of the cross, six classrooms are located in a long line, an example of what has been called a “finger plan”(Figure 2). In later schools, the kind of long, institutional corridor that was the inevitable result of such a linear plan (see Figure 3), was frequently abandoned in favour of classrooms clustered round a central hall or courtyard. Again, the intention was to provide younger pupils with a more “homely” environment in which to learn, as well as to adopt a more open plan that would encourage free movement in and out of individual classrooms.

Figure 3. One of the long corridors at Carden today.

On its south-eastern elevations in particular, the school takes advantage of the coastal sunlight with extensive glazing. The interior of the classrooms at Carden are light, airy and welcoming because of the two deep windows and French doors that open out onto terraces, terraces that were originally planted (Figure 4 and 5). Pam Stone (née Bridgen), one of the first pupils to transfer from Patcham Junior to Carden, remembers, “On sunny days desks and chairs were put outside for our lessons.”7Correspondence regarding Carden’s fiftieth anniversary, The Keep ACC 7252/9

Thus, as well as inheriting the Victorian concern to provide natural light for the pupils to work by, Carden also inherited the inspiration of the Open Air School movement of the earlier twentieth century, a tradition that has recently returned with a vengeance in the form of “forest schools” and “beach schools”. 8The Open Air Schools movement originated in fears for the health of urban children, and in particular their susceptibility to respiratory diseases caused by pollution. School “pavilions” were modelled on TB sanatoriums. In reality, many children, far from enjoying the constant fresh air, complained that it was cold outside!

Figure 4. Outdoor area for one classroom, including planting. The Keep, Photograph album of the school ACC 7952/7
Figure 5. Windows and French doors meant that classrooms at Carden enjoyed plenty of natural light and fresh air. The Keep, Photograph album of the school ACC 7952/7

The Open Air Schools movement originated in fears for the health of urban children, and in particular their susceptibility to respiratory diseases caused by pollution. School “pavilions” were modelled on TB sanatoriums. In reality, many children, far from enjoying the constant fresh air, complained that it was cold outside!

In contrast to the generous glazing of the school’s south-eastern elevations, however, the windows of the north-western elevations are rather pinched and monotonous. They bring light into the corridors but from the outside lend the building a far less pleasing and open appearance (Figure 6).

Figure 6. A north-western elevation today.

At Carden, additional wings for the Juniors were followed by the construction of a separate Infant School, all of which was built uphill of the original wing. These subsequent wings took advantage of the changes in level to provide two storeys of accommodation rather than one (Figure 6).

Viewed from County Oak Avenue, the completed school is impressive. It is built around two grassed courtyards, which provide outdoor space in addition to the extensive playing fields to the north-west of the buildings. Despite the earthworks already noted, these courtyards still have to cope with significant changes in level caused by the uphill site. Perhaps as a result of this, the ample courtyards have not been used very imaginatively, meaning that Carden typifies Richard Weston’s criticism of too many school grounds consisting of “ubiquitous chain-link fencing and acres of tarmac and mown grass”. 9Weston, R, Schools of Thought, Hampshire County Council, 1991. We should note, however, that Carden has plans to make more of the open areas by adding new outdoor classrooms on the flatter land at the bottom of the site.

Inside, the numerous wings, long corridors and frequent changes in level occasionally make the school feel a bit like a rabbit warren. Conversely, this same complexity of plan has enabled the building to offer accommodation for an Early Years’ nursery and the Hollingbury and Patcham Children’s Centre. As a result, the school is very well integrated with the community it serves.

In terms of style, Carden is recognisably a modernist building. Modernist principles are followed in that form follows function: the prominent stair towers that allow the changes of level to be negotiated by children and adults alike become the principal design feature (Figure 7). Internally, the stair towers continue to provide spacious circulation areas (Figure 8). The exterior verticality of these towers is emphasised by their perpendicular glazing bars. The overall design retains a pleasing sense of proportion between the thrust of these verticals and the long, horizontal lines of the single and double storey elements. The modernist credentials of Carden are completed by the building materials used, concrete and glass being hallmarks of the so-called International Style.

Figure 7. A class photograph showing the stair towers in the background. The original Junior wing is on the left. The Keep, Photograph album of the school ACC 7952/7
Figure 8. A contemporary internal view of the spacious circulation area at the bottom of one of the stair towers.

We should note, however, that Carden has plans to make more of the open areas by adding new outdoor classrooms on the flatter land at the bottom of the site.

Faster, cheaper, better?

In our last article on St Luke’s, a late Victorian primary school, we noted the presence in a separate building of a Manual School, where pupils learned a trade. Many Board schools like St Luke’s introduced such an element of vocational education. This was partly a response to contemporary fears about the British economy losing markets to Germany, where workers were said to be more highly-skilled than their British counterparts.

In contrast, an article about Carden published in the Concrete Quarterly magazine in 1949 showed how the influence of more Progressive, child-centred ideas about education informed the design of schools immediately after World War Two. Flatly contradicting the Victorian concern for vocational training, the article asserts that the purpose of education is “not just to teach a boy a trade – but to introduce him to life”. 10Concrete Quarterly, Number 5, Spring 1949. Sadly, it seems that the girls would have to wait for both.Accordingly, Carden, it was said, sought to encourage its children’s creativity by offering “education by way of building blocks and paint brushes”. 11Concrete Quarterly, Number 5, Spring 1949The article also notes that the Junior School Hall was a generous 2,000 square foot and included a stage and green room: evidently, drama was to be as important as art in Carden’s curriculum.

The education at Carden was thus intended to be rooted in the aptitudes of the “whole child”. The photographs of the first classes likewise tend to show pupils gathered in groups round a table rather than lines of children sitting behind rows of desks. At Carden, it seems, pupils were encouraged to collaborate with each other rather than just listen to their teacher.

Certainly, Carden attracted many visitors who were interested not only in the building itself, but in the type of education going on inside. In June 1948, a delegation from the National Association of Headteachers visited, to be followed in January 1949 by a group of 30 trainee teachers from the Bognor Training College. 12The Keep, Carden School Log Book, ACC 7952/1One of the first teachers to be employed at Carden, Ms Jean Hambleton, recalled her sense of pride at working at a school that was regarded as innovative in its pedagogy as well as its architecture: “I considered myself as a young girl newly qualified to teach, most fortunate to be appointed to its staff”.13Correspondence regarding Carden’s fiftieth anniversary, The Keep ACC 7252/9

Yet this ground-breaking school was built at a time of austerity. The parents who sent their children to Carden Junior in 1948 would still have been using ration books at home.   

The over-riding need for affordability meant that many post-war schools were built with prefabricated building systems – or what is termed today modular systems. The widespread use of such systems meant the post-war programme of school building could be delivered faster and at a lower cost than would have been the case if more traditional construction methods and more traditional materials such as brick had been deployed. The scale of the Herculean task comes into focus when one considers that in the three decades following 1946 no fewer than seven million additional school places were created in Britain.14Dent, H A Century of Growth in English Education: 1870-1970, Prentice Hall Press, 1970

Carden was built using the Orlit system of pre-cast concrete frames and pre-cast concrete wall and floor slabs. These frames and slabs were delivered to the site on lorries and assembled there like Meccano kits. Figure 9 shows a house built using the Orlit system in three different stages of construction: on the left, the precast concrete frame has been assembled; in the middle, the pre-cast floor and roof slabs are in position; on the right, the walls have been completed up to the first floor level.

Figure 9. A house constructed using the Orlit system at different stages of construction. Architects’ Journal, July 12, 1945

At Carden, Brighton Borough Architect Percy Billington adapted the Orlit system to suit the educational needs of the pupils and his own ambitions for the town’s schools. Thus, instead of using the Orlit precast concrete slabs, the large Junior Hall with its stage and green room was constructed using a steel frame structure together with a poured concrete roof and brick walls. 15Concrete Quarterly, Number 5, Spring 1949

To find out more about the Orlit system and its designer, Czech émigré architect Erwin Katona, click Here

Conclusion: build back better?

Brighton has many reasons to be proud of Carden and St Luke’s, representing as they do two highpoints in school building in Britain.

St Luke’s was a late example of the first wave of school building that followed the 1870 Education Act, which for the first time made local authorities responsible for the education of children up to the age of 13. Likewise, Carden was the city’s response to another landmark piece of educational legislation, the 1944 Education Act, an Act which established education as one of the pillars of the social democratic state, with its promise of educating the child for a richer and more fulfilling life.

The prefabricated systems deployed in the post war period resulted in cheap buildings that were only expected to have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years. Today, however, Carden remains largely as it was the day it was completed seven decades ago.

In 1948, it seems, Britain really did build back better.  

Richard would like to thank Alistair McNair, Chair of Governors at Carden, for taking him round the school and for his help in writing the article. Richard would also like to thank Ninka Willcock for sharing her research on Carden School, and for her comments on the first draft of the article.

APPENDIX A: The Orlit system and Erwin Katona

The huge post war programme of school building commenced at a time of austerity and severe shortages of building materials. One way of reducing costs was to use modular building systems. Many construction companies marketed their proprietorial systems to local authorities looking to build new schools and houses quickly and cheaply.

The Orlit system was the intellectual property of Scottish construction company Orlit Ltd. To build Carden School, the company supplied Brighton Corporation with pre-cast reinforced concrete frames with cavity walls. 16Architects’ Journal, “The Orlit system of house construction”, July 12th, 1945.The vertical connections were made by bolting together steel plates cast into the ends of the columns (Figure 10). Horizontal connections were formed by pouring a small amount of concrete into the cavities at the end of beams, which also contained overlapping steel reinforcements.

Figure 10. An Orlit system corner joint with the metal plates at the bottom of the column to form the vertical join. The cavity on the horizontal beam is ready to receive its concrete. Architects’ Journal, July 12, 1945

The Architects’ Journal of July 12th 1945 reviewed the system enthusiastically. The article praised Orlit for the way it overcame materials and skill shortages in particular: “no skilled labour is required for production or erection, and all the materials are immediately available in all parts of the country”. 17Ibid, p 30.The same article measured Orlit’s  performance against various British Standards, concluding that the concrete prefabrication resulted in buildings of a “highly permanent character” that allowed “no infiltration of cold air, nor absorption of moisture by the…impervious slabs”.18Ibid, p 31.

Although Orlit Ltd was a Scottish company, the Orlit system itself was designed by  Erwin Katona, a Hungarian-born architect active in Prague before the Second World War.19“Internationaler Kritischer Regionalismus? Zum werkdes deutschsprachigen Jüdischen architekten Erwin Katona (1903–1980)”, Zuzana Güllendi-Cimprichová, Universität Bamberg Katona’s work in the Czech capital included The Milly House, which he designed for Czech educator Pÿemysl Pitter and which was intended for the education of poor children (Figure 11). The Milly House shares many modernist features with Carden School including the flat roof, the low profile, the tall glazing bars and the aerodynamic balcony.

Figure 11. The Milly House, Prague.

Jewish, Katona fled Prague for Britain in 1938, before the Nazi annexation of Czech Sudetenland. From 1947 to 1980, Katona was a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He also took part in the influential Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS), a group of architects seeking to establish modernism in Britain. 20ibid

Erwin Katona was therefore just one of hundreds of progressive Jewish artists, academics and designers who sought refuge in Britain from the Nazis in the years before the outbreak of World War Two. 21Snowman, D, The Hitler Emigrés: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism, Pimlico 2012These refugees included Walter Gropius, the director of the famous Bauhaus school of industrial design in Germany. It was whilst Gropius was in England that he designed Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire, a highly-influential modernist school featuring the same low-rise design and concrete and glass materials as both Carden and the Milly House.

The fact that émigré modernists such as Erwin Katona made such important contributions to the post-war reconstruction of Britain is yet another reason Brighton has to be proud of Carden School.


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