The last time the Society got involved in a case concerning a big concrete building in Wales – we fought valiantly but ultimately lost. Even though the seminal and internationally important Brynmawr Rubber Factory,(Architects Co-operative Partnership in conjunction with Ove Arup & Partners, 1945-51) was listed at Grade II* by Cadw, it fell into disrepair and after a lengthy conservation battle was finally torn down in 2001.
We hope the outcome for another internationally recognised concrete building, currently a major case for us and once again in Gwent, South Wales, will have an entirely different outcome.
Newport school was designed by Eldred Evans and David Shalev, best known for their much later Tate St Ives (1993), and was their first major work. Their design for a new school on an empty site was the winning entry in a national competition run by the Newport Education Authority in 1967; one of the assessors was James Stirling.
The brief for the competition had been exacting and highly-researched and unusually it stipulated that the school should be organized into houses, each one containing classrooms, cloakrooms, toilets, activity spaces and communal areas for groups of 120 children. In addition there was to be a set of specialist teaching areas for the vocational subjects including domestic science and metalwork, which were seen as appropriate to the needs of the South Wales catchment area. The school also had to be very big overall, accommodating up to 1760 children.
Evans and Shalev’s winning entry divided the site into three distinct areas – two pitch areas for sports and the classrooms blocks and ancillary buildings. The ground was partly levelled during construction to accommodate the hard-surface pitches. This accentuated the changes of level between areas but also allowed the use of a stepped terrace of three tiers– this in turn allowed the many south-facing roofs to be utilized for outdoor teaching or play.
Because of the requirement to cluster groups of children in ‘houses’, Evans and Shalev’s design complied with neither of the two camps of thought that were prevalent in the educational architecture of the time. Eschewing both the functional traditionalism of building interconnecting blocks assigned by subject on the one hand and indeterminate open-planning on the other, the architects developed a disciplined hierarchy of spaces at Newport which remain seminal and influential in the history of school building.
Each teaching unit or ‘house’ is arranged around a courtyard for play and recreation, which also doubles as teaching space in the summer. Each unit is accessible from one of the main east-west walkways, from two of the north-south walkways, from the play-roof and from its own courtyard. This is the most significant design element in the plan, because this allowed for a free pattern of movement by the children through the school. Each house also contained a classroom for disabled children.
Evans and Shalev called this a ‘disciplined grouping of educational facilities’ which created a hierarchy of pedestrian thoroughfares and spaces. The building was constructed in exposed ‘forticrete’ blockwork with vertical joints with extensive use of ‘Ke Klamp’ hand railing throughout – materials they would use again for two buildings for Camden Council on the Alexandra Road Estate.
The current situation is not good. Lack of maintenance, infilling of some of the courtyards and poor management, coupled with the fact that the house system underlying the original design was seen as a failure, have resulted in a building in crisis. Unloved and derided locally, it is now seen by the local authority as a liability that is failing the area’s children and not delivering the kind of educational environment they deserve. The Society has not argued, throughout the course of the campaign thus far, that the building is perfect, far from it, we have acknowledged its current shortcomings and argued that it could be remodeled to suit contemporary requirements and retain most, if not all of the architects’ original intentions – Eldred Evans herself has suggested that it could even be turned into a mixed-use building of some kind, perhaps serving the local community as well as offering commercial opportunities. As with many large concrete buildings that become threatened with demolition, we have also argued that the course of action proposed by the local authority is simply wasteful and that if sustainability means one thing, it means reuse of what we have – a point I made clear when I was grilled on BBC Radio Wales about our commitment to “Newport’s eyesore”, as the presenter called it.
It has been wonderful throughout the campaign so far to have been in regular contact with Eldred Evans and David Shalev themselves, who have marshalled a significant number of key architects to the defense of the building. As a result of this, the case file is now bulging with support from such luminaries as Joseph Rykwert, Sunand Prasad, Lord Rogers, Benson and Forsyth and many others. Even Pevsner celebrated the building, calling it a brilliant exposition of concrete construction, modular design and orderly planning
We have put the building forward for listing to Cadw and they are currently assessing it. We have no doubt that the fate of the building now rests with Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh First Minister and we, along with many notable architects and scholars, are lobbying him too. Cadw, of course, means “keep”, in Welsh, we hope they are true to their name and list Newport High School as soon as possible.
STOP PRESS: We have just learnt that Cadw has refused listing.
A joint C20/Docomomo event is being planned to Wales which will include a visit to Newport High School. See Events Programme for further details.