Learning and Legacy

Conservation and renewal in the UK educational estate

Summary of a lecture by John Allan at the Conference ‘From Classroom to Campus’’ held at the University of Melbourne, November 2012.

This lecture outlined the political and social context of modern architecture in Britain and the uneven and often controversial progress of its conservation, with a focus on the education sector: schools and universities built in the post-war decades including, for example, the radical Hertfordshire and CLASP schools progammes and the so-called “plateglass” university campuses of East Anglia (1963); Essex (1964/5); Kent (1965); Lancaster (1964); Sussex (1961); Warwick (1965) and York (1963).

Consideration of these modern educational buildings and estates as “heritage” revealed that of all post-war building types in England to have been considered for statutory protection, the largest number of listings to date has been in the education sector – some 18% of the total. But this programme of education-related heritage designation and conservation has not come without controversy and questions surrounding extant buildings’ future viability and ‘fitness for purpose’. Key issues to be confronted here include: fabric deterioration through poor maintenance; increasing non-compliance with current standards and environmental underperformance; image problems; changing pedagogical demands; new procurement culture; and ‘weak’ heritage recognition as such.

Two notable cases in point that faced such issues without successful resolution, included Pimlico School (London) proposed but rejected for listing and subsequently demolished, and the detrimental impact on Elliot School (London) of adjacent development – ostensibly to generate restoration funding but significantly depleting the campus amenities.

The discussion then examined a series of case studies undertaken by Avanti Architects comprising schools and university projects demonstrating the transformational effects of balancing conservation, upgrade and adaptation in the education sector to produce sustainable outcomes for an extended future. That these projects had primarily been motivated by factors other than conservation per se – including considerations of investment and return, social and operational continuity, locational identity, embodied energy aspects and better control of risk – had not excluded the substantial enhancement of heritage values.


Case Study 1: Haggerston School, Hackney, London (1962-7) designed by Erno Goldfinger for the LCC

Avanti Architects were engaged as part of the LB Hackney “Building Schools for the Future” programme for the refurbishment and technical upgrade of the original buildings, and also the introduction of additional accommodation within the campus plan to cater for curriculum development and the increase in pupil numbers from becoming co-educational. This case shows how a 40 year old school can be successfully transformed to meet 21st century aspirations and needs within a tight budget. It also illustrates how a balanced approach and careful prioritisation of limited expenditure can make significant impact on both the technical performance of degraded school buildings and on the educational environment as a whole, whilst still honouring and enhancing the original design.


Case Study 2: Jesus College, Cambridge – New North Court (1965), designed David Roberts.

New North Court was immediately recognised as an innovative and highly ingenious plan, which re-invented the traditional 3-storey Oxbridge college residence typology and provided every student room with its own balcony. However this heritage-listed building needed radical reconfiguration to provide ensuite accommodation with upgraded environmental servicing.

Meanwhile the shared communal facilities, called ‘gyp rooms’, were relocated from the internal building cores into the underused storage rooms with a ground floor courtyard outlook. The finished result has transformed the building in every respect except its exterior appearance which remains almost identical to the original listed design.


Case Study 3: Sheffield University Library (1959) designed by Gollins Melvin Ward.

The library at Sheffield was the first stage in this University’s major post-war expansion, initiated by an international competition won in 1953 by Gollins Melvin Ward. It was listed as Grade II* in 1993. However after half a century of intensive use, the building was tired and becoming unfit for purpose in terms of functionality and comfort. A Conservation Plan undertaken by Avanti assisted in informing architectural solutions and reaffirming the original value of the building. The scope of works that followed this study included re-design of the entrance foyer; creation of a new mezzanine exhibition area; restoration of the Catalogue Hall; provision of additional study carrels in the internal stack areas; replacement of defective glazing; upgrading of services and other fabric repairs. The outcome has wholly restored the building’s identity and prestige and transformed user morale.


Case Study 4: Leeds University Listed Building Management Guidelines (LBMG)

The major series of buildings undertaken by the architects Chamberlin Powell & Bon for the University of Leeds over a period from the 1960s to the late 1970s was listed in 2010. Therefore any building works that would affect the buildings or their setting are subject to the provisions of the Planning Act 1990. In this project Avanti Architects was accordingly commissioned to produce a campus heritage management strategy. This established an evaluation platform built on historical data, and an identification of key elements of ‘significance’ that could provide a roadmap for guiding future works and day-to-day management of the estate. This instrument thus allows for necessary change while safeguarding the heritage value of the listed asset.


Case Study 5: St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, Scotland. Current dereliction (left), and as imagined restored

The final case is the remarkable St Peter’s College commissioned by the Archdiocese of Glasgow for the training of young Catholic priests, designed by Gillespie, Kidd and Cola and opened in 1966. The complex consists of several distinct but related buildings, closely influenced by Le Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette, with an extensive landscaped estate. In 1980 the seminary closed and fell into increasing dereliction. Avanti Architects undertook a Conservation Assessment of the Category A heritage-listed complex, and is now working on a new rescue project initiated by the Glasgow arts charity NVA, which proposes an educational and recreational model of adaptive re-use. The project faces a range of daunting challenges – technical, financial, social and environmental – but seeks to overcome the decades of neglect through a carefully phased programme of rehabilitation and renewal that will re-connect the site both to the local community and a wider audience thereby extending its rich heritage values in a continuing narrative of learning and recreation.



The lecture concluded with some reflections on the lessons of evidence. In the developing discourse on modern conservation (at least in the UK) emphasis is continually placed on statutory designation and heritage advocacy as the primary means of advancing ‘the cause’. Yet as these case studies demonstrate it is a wider range of more ‘secular’ drivers that generally mobilise such projects – benefits of retention of embodied energy, operational continuity, environmental sustainability and better value for money. By habitually invoking heritage values as their main objective conservationists often overlook the more persuasive arguments that good evidence can offer. The buildings and campuses cited have all been, or in St Peter’s case will be, revitalised to sustain new patterns of learning for the 21st century, demonstrating that the technical challenges can almost always be overcome by design and ingenuity. Yet in every case this has been achieved in ways that also extend original heritage values. This suggests that the real obstacles to furthering the conference objectives are not technical but political and cultural; and that the resistance to beneficial re-use of our modern educational legacy is not design inhibition but a residue of prejudice and ingrained habits of thinking and action. Time and again the assumption that these sorts of buildings cannot be redeemed by transformative design or the intelligent application of limited funding is shown to be disproved by the evidence of worked examples.


Too often in the consideration of recent architectural heritage the problem is thus posed in terms of an alleged choice: either to meet the needs of future generations and demolish, or alternatively to ‘stop the clock’ and save a historical (modern) relic that at best may appeal only to a few historians and MoMo specialists. But in many cases this stems from either ignorance or laziness – ignorance of what is technically possible, or laziness in refusing to think more imaginatively of ways of assimilating both objectives.

This applies to the education sector, as much as any other. The challenge is surely to find a sustainable balance between the preservation of buildings and spaces by which educational institutions are recognised and remembered, and the constant pressure for renewal that must be served and assimilated if the progressive functions of universities and schools are to be sustained. The best antidote to scepticism is evidence, and the case studies above – as well as the many other brilliant examples presented at this conference – demonstrate the fallacy of regarding the issue of preserving or replacing the architecture of the recent past as an inevitable choice between heritage or progress. They all achieved both preservation and renewal.


In short, not learning OR legacy – but Learning AND Legacy.

© John Allan, 2012


Photography by Avanti Architects, Tom de Gay and Nick Kane


Debate, Haggerston School, Jesus College, NOW, St Peter’s Seminary, University of Leeds, Western Bank Library,