The Twentieth Century Society

Review: A Life in Education and Architecture: Mary Beaumont Medd

by Catherine Burke (Ashgate, 261 pp, £55)

Reviewed by Elain Harwood

Mary Medd, née Mary Crowley (1907-2005) belonged to a great generation of women architects who trained at the Architectural Association.  The Society has visited the trio of houses at Tewin, Hertfordshire – designed in 1936 with strong Scandinavian influences for her parents, sister and a family friend – when Mary and her husband David Medd made a brief appearance.

Her father was the senior medical officer to the Board of Education, concerned with reforming education and school building as part of an interest in ‘the whole child’, and Mary Crowley’s final thesis was for an education centre that drew on her father’s work as well as Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire, so it was seemingly inevitable that she would be drawn towards school building. But her opportunity came only with the Second World War and an appointment to design school kitchens for Hertfordshire’s Education Department.  When the county council created an Architects Department in 1945 in response to an acute shortage of schools, she moved across.

Hertfordshire is best known today for developing a programme of prefabricated schools that were unusually successful, both structurally and in the greater freedom they gave to the learning activities of small children. It is also linked with the short-lived team of architects who went on to dominate government departments and local authorities for the next two decades.  Mary and David Medd were two of these, following the team’s inspirational leader Stirrat Johnson-Marshall to the Ministry of Education after their marriage in 1949.  Though the Ministry was to have a continuing interest in prefabrication, its greatest role was in school planning, and this was where the Medds’ interests lay.  In a series of deliberately humble brick buildings they explored the creation of adaptable spaces for working in groups, messy activities and recreation, together with quiet enclosures for study or reading stories.  David Medd was the technician, while Mary explored ideas with educationalists.

This quiet work was only briefly noted by Andrew Saint in his book Towards a Social Architecture (which was mainly concerned with Johnson-Marshall) but it was studied in more detail by Stuart Maclure in Educational Development and School Building, published in 1984.  Both authors drew heavily on the experience and drive of the Medds, who published their work as a series of Building Bulletins until Mary’s retirement in 1972, and lectured extensively around the world thereafter.  The Medds’ views on school building, and their semi-open designs such as the Finmere, Delf Hill and Eveline Lowe schools, were thus widely known to architectural historians.

Cathy Burke read Mary Medd’s obituary and was moved to contact David, with whom she developed a remarkable rapport before his own sudden death in 2009.  Films and articles followed, all conducted with remarkable energy and passion, and this book is their summation.  It annoys on many counts.  It is badly written and badly edited, it is hagiographic and sentimental, and it places the emphasis back on the Medds just as younger historians were seeking to look beyond the standard histories of post-war school building which they had come to dominate as commentators in their retirement.

Burke herself is a lecturer in education and she is interested in the assessment of schools by children, who often endorse the Medds’ call for a variety of spaces.  Her book is most informative in making links between Mary Medd and the schools she and her father admired around the world, and in discussing the training courses at Dartington and BishopGrossetesteCollege, Lincoln, where the Medds collaborated with educationalists.  Burke’s work and enthusiasm is valuable in that she can bring the post-war architectural world to a new and important audience of users – and teachers have often proved remarkably unappreciative of the artistic and historic value of their buildings.  The book may even serve to bring the two professions together as Mary Medd would have wished.  But members of the Society will be profoundly disappointed, for this is not the urgently needed volume on post-war schools that will place the Medd orthodoxy in its proper context.