The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Geoffrey Chaucer School faces demolition

Geoffrey Chaucer School in Southwark opened in 1958. A brand new secondary school for girls designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Two Saints, as it was originally known, was one of the more celebrated architectural projects of that year. The practice employed powerful architectural form that reflected the educational zeitgeist of the time. The functional separation of practical and academic areas by administration and kitchen blocks had been a feature of school building since the beginning of the decade. At GCS, however, CPB employed several design elements that although based in the general educational design ethos of the time, were far more experimental and ensured that in 1993 the site was given listed status at Grade II. The reason for listing seems as clear today as it must have been to the inspectors then. Despite the obvious star-turn of the Pentagon building, it is the interplay between the functionality and form of the various structures that mark it as noteworthy. It remains an impressive example of post-war educational architecture. Unfortunately, the ever-evolving demands placed on school buildings and the desire for wholesale redevelopment of the Elephant & Castle area, have persuaded Southwark Council that GCS can no longer function effectively as a school.  In 2006 proposals were put forward by Southwark and Future Systems Architects to demolish all the buildings at the school save the Pentagon and build a new school around the perimeter of the expansive site. The Pentagon was and indeed still is, of immense architectural significance. Its hyperbolic paraboloid concrete shell roof was the first built in Britain and it remains one of the few built examples of the type. There is a clear relationship between it, and the later roof of the Commonwealth Institute. The roof’s shape allowed for an impressive and futuristic interior, with sliding shutters to block of the form room areas and huge venetian blinds to cover the triangular windows – it’s still the perfect setting for assemblies, concerts and meetings.

CPB had designed a school previously, at Bousfield (1954-56), were they employed curtain walling and steel frames to great effect. At GCS however, their evolution as a practice is manifest everywhere. The plan is indicative of their taste for ‘sculptural symmetry’ and it does not take a fully-fledged trekkie to see the basic similarity between the school plan and the design of Starfleet’s finest, the USS Enterprise. As Star Trek was not even conceived until 1960 and not broadcast until 1966, one unfortunately cannot see Mssrs Chamberlin, Powell and Bon as the Kirk, Spock and Bones of the architectural establishment of the time. Indeed, there were many buildings of this period that were clearly influenced by visions of the future. The use of upper-level circulation and the concrete illustrate clear lineage to CPB’s later celebrated work at the Barbican (1960) and at Leeds University (1966-71) but GCS is also illustrative of CPB’s ideas about ’place-making’. The Harper Road perimeter wall is constructed of bomb rubble and as one walks round its impressive base all manner of brick scraps, stonework and even old boundary markers can be seen in its make-up. In the foundations of the two main teaching blocks, they employed the same idea and again, careful inspection reveals a cornucopic mix of local material history and archaeological artefact. ‘Place-making’ meant attention to detail, and in the use of water to form a pond between the pentagon and gymnasium and in the concrete bowls built to collect rainwater from the pentagon roof the high regard for detailed and imaginative devices is again clear.

The argument for retention and re-use seems twofold and is supported by the fact that in 1976, the school was sympathetically refurbished and extended to take account of the school’s expansion and amalgamation with the adjacent Paragon School for boys. Extra accommodation was added above the central courtyard and most significantly, the science block was extended with the bay pattern copied and the window pattern extended – it was so in-keeping, it’s now difficult not to see the extension as anything but part of the original plan. And therein lies the rub. As a unity of listed structures, dependent on interplay and relationship between one another, GCS is exemplary. To isolate the Pentagon as a ‘soloist, (as it has been described by Frank Woods, the last surviving architect to work in the CPB practice), at the expense of the rest of the orchestra, is to place it damagingly out of context. Any music lover knows the soloist is rendered meaningless without the support of the whole ensemble.

The school was in 2005 judged to be failing to deliver an acceptable standard of education for the second time and was placed under ‘special measures’.   Subsequently however, GCS leapt up the performance tables to become the, ‘most improved Southwark school’. Ironically for a school built originally for girls, the gender split is now heavily weighted in the boys’ favour with three-quarters of pupils being male. 60% of the pupils’ first language is not English and almost 40% of all pupils are registered as having special educational needs.

The school therefore, faces fundamental problems that would be hard to contend with anywhere and which in no way reflect the architectural quality or the condition of the buildings. The Society sees the proposals for the school as architecturally flawed and unnecessary and in addition, disruptive to the education of the pupils. We have however, gone further than simply reacting to the current proposals. We are extremely grateful to architect and Society member Robert Loader who is currently working with us in a pro-bono capacity to develop new plans for both educational and alternative use for the threatened buildings at the school. We hope this will kickstart a more detailed debate about the future of the site and how it may fit in to the wider re-generation of this deprived area of Southwark. Robert is faced with some difficult issues, not least the context of the site and its position at the intersection of New Kent Road and Harper Road. Tucked away behind a row of terraces on one side and a huge wall on the other it is, at present, not in the least visible from either elevation. One solution might be to open up access to the school to the New Kent Road, making it a more prominent feature and allowing views of the Pentagon from the street – it would certainly allow many more people to see it.

We have to act quickly.  Southwark, driven by the desire to make the school a flagship of the government’s city academies programme, clearly want to fast-track the demolition and get on with amalgamating GCS and the Joseph Lancaster school on the same site, to form a ‘through academy’, which would specialise in the teaching of the performing arts. The city academies’ programme has been one of Blair’s pet projects since he took office, but it’s an idea he took directly from the Tories. State-maintained independent schools, set up with the help of outside sponsors – it was Blair’s belief that public-spirited business leaders and would sponsor local schools in return for a hand in the running of them. At GCS, plans are well advanced, with hedge fund charity Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) providing the financial muscle. In the context of the wider regeneration of Southwark then, GSC is a crossroads for all kinds of political and social issues. However, we must remember that we are dealing with buildings already marked out, by inclusion on the statutory list, as architecturally significant. We hope very much that we can propose workable solutions in response to all these issues, to make sure that the buildings of GCS will be enjoyed by future generations, whatever their purpose.

Jon Wright