Art of Change (by Ken Baynes)

London Streetscape

London streetscape

Over the past few months we have been getting Eileen Adams’ new book ready for publication in June. Called Eileen Adams: Agent of Change it is a ‘critical autobiography’ covering her experiences as a classroom teacher, researcher and campaigner. A recurring theme in her career is the use of study methods deriving from art to provide pupils with a vivid and realistic way of engaging with change, particularly in environmental design – architecture, planning and landscape design. To us it seems very topical in the light of the Government’s 200,000 ‘affordable’ homes announcement and Labour’s new pledge to build 100,000 council houses every year should they be elected. Good news. But it should also encourage teachers – and educational policy makers – to question the continued lack of anything substantial about the built environment in the school curriculum. The new Draft GCSE subject content for Design and Technology (July 2015) lists ‘Improving living and working spaces (environments and objects)’ as one of eight ‘Contextual Challenges’ but this hardly does justice to the importance of the design of homes, workplaces and schools in people’s lives.

The design opportunity represented by 200,000 ‘affordable’ homes is potentially game changing. It would be a tragic waste if they turn out to be more of the same – suburban cottages with little real relationship to their local traditions or world-wide developments in building technology and architecture. The challenges facing the future designers of these houses and apartments include depletion of the world’s resources, sustainable energy policies and creative use of new construction techniques and materials. Engineers, technologists, ecologists and architects can all make a contribution. There is also a need for a matching input from landscape and interior designers, community workers and artists. These new places need to work technologically and socially. They should also make a positive impact on the townscape.

The penalty for failure was demonstrated recently when Glasgow’s Red Road flats were demolished. These tower blocks, built to relieve slum conditions in the city’s tenements, became a by-word for everything that was wrong with industrialised building. When I visited them twenty years ago, the council was making a brave attempt to improve them and many of the tenants I spoke to actually enjoyed living there. They were making brave attempts to improve the management of the place. But the buildings certainly deserved demolition. They were the dire results of the arrogant paternalism that blighted our cities in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

The failure in the field of housing was part of a larger failure in urban design that started after the Second World War. The nature of the problem was convincingly identified at the time by the brilliant architectural commentator, Ian Nairn. This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of his polemical masterpiece ,’Outrage’ . It was based on a special issue of the ‘Architectural Review’ which had appeared a year earlier. In it Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ to describe bland, joyless suburbs and the ugliness of the new environment of roundabouts, signage, hoardings and ‘street furniture’ springing up all over Britain. Nairn drove from Southamton to Carlisle and found that the approaches to each city were identical: ‘the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’. I’d claim it is not so different today. Certainly the new housing developments around our local market town in the East Midlands could be anywhere from Devon to Durham.

I met Nairn when he came to address a public meeting organized by Anti-Ugly Action. I was a founder member of this student protest group based in the Stained Glass Department of the Royal College of Art. Using street demonstrations and other events, our aim was to draw attention to the poor quality of many new buildings and particularly their generally backward-looking design. Nairn was a legendary beer drinker and the journey from RCA to the meeting in Kensington was lengthened by pub stops. I thought perhaps he was drunk. As we mounted the platform he straightened up and gave a brilliant speech. Nairn’s work, if not his beer consumption, influenced me deeply and, in fact, there is a direct link with Eileen’s book. It was partly thanks to his example that nearly twenty years later I became the Director of a project intended to introduce learning about architectural design into the school curriculum. Eileen, then at Pimlico School, was the art teacher nominated by the Inner London Education Authority to take part in the pilot project, called Front Door. William Wilkins (also an ex-Anti-Ugly) was the Press Officer of the GLC Architect’s Department and he organized a number of architects to work with Eileen.

At the time, we thought it likely that a part of the problem of poor urban design was that those in charge – councillors, architects, planners – didn’t think that ordinary people were clever enough to make sensible judgements about the built environment . We disagreed. Given some relevant experience, we believed they could. But what was certain was that their schooling was sadly lacking in any relevant teaching.

There is a long history of concern about the effect of the urban environment on children. Working class housing began to be a matter for reformers and politicians at the end of the Eighteenth Century, coinciding exactly with the moment when the industrial revolution began to get up steam. Key reasons for the search for improved living conditions were infant mortality and the scandal of children who lived their lives in the filth and danger of the streets. It was during the Nineteenth Century that there emerged the essentially romantic idea of ‘city bad’/’country good’. Edith Nesbit, author of ‘The Railway Children’, wrote in 1902 that ‘London has none of those nice things that children may play with without hurting the things or themselves – such as trees and sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London is the wrong sort of shape – all straight lines and flat streets, instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things are in the country … That is why so many children who live in towns are so extremely naughty’

Nobody would argue that children don’t enjoy trees and sand and woods and waters. But in her new book Eileen Adams pays tribute to the educational potential of the streets and yards of her home town, Greenock.

Educating children about the built environment has seldom been on the agenda. But, in its own way, the Grand Tour was an example. During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the rich sent their sons (very rarely daughters) off to Europe to learn ‘good taste’ and so prepare them to be discriminating patrons of the arts, architecture and landscape. It seems to have done a good job: the story of the English country house and grounds is partly the story of enlightened patronage. The Nineteenth Century, ever practical, was interested in the training of competent artisans. But Henry Cole, founder of modern art schools, recognized the wider value of a public with an appreciation of good design. He wanted free museums and art galleries all over Britain to be the visual equivalent of free libraries for literacy.

The importance of art and design education for all children developed from such sources as Ruskin and Morris, the Bauhaus, Franz Cizek in Austria, the modern movement in art and psychoanalysis. In Britain, Herbert Read was a key figure, claiming that art was an educational medium in its own right. The idea emerged that the aim of teaching art in schools was not to produce the artists of the future (though it would do that too) but to help people to understand and take part in visual culture and design.

This is where our new publication takes off. Eileen Adams’ whole career has been a sustained exploration of how to use art as a medium for general education. In particular, she has been able to make learning about buildings and places an exciting reality for both primary and secondary children. As it happens, many of Eileen’s approaches can work as well with adults as children. So this new book is required reading not only for educationalists but for politicians, planners, architects and community activists as well.

View the Book Page for Eileen Adams: Agent of Change in art, design and environmental education 


ISBN: [hardback, colour] 978-1-909671-13-3 … £55.00 RRP
ISBN: [paperback, B&W] 978-1-909671-14-0 … £15.99 RRP

These different versions are also available from all good book stores (eg Waterstones) and online book sellers (eg BOOKS etc).

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