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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

I love Brixton College for exactly the reasons many think it's obsolete

Lambeth College, Brixton - the college remains but the building will probably go.
Glad to hear that if it's true - but it probably won't be in this modest but
remarkably workable and friendly building, but something more like
 the flashy Clapham branch a couple of miles west of here.
Read on the excellent Brixton Blog that the future of the old Brixton College of FE site on Brixton Hill is  again under discussion.

I'm a part-time student at this place, which is one of the three campuses used by Lambeth College, and I have grown to love its 1960s utilitarian simplicity.

It really is a classic example of school/college architecture of that late 50s to 60s era - lots of metal-framed glass, block-colour panelling, hard floors, a simple, elegant quadrangular plan with a large dining area at one end with an equally spacious library on the floor above. The classrooms are what some Labour minister might have called bog standard - a run of rectangular rooms, spacious, all well lit, though the ones facing Brixton Hill get a lot of traffic noise.

I can't be certain, but it looks like "system built" or CLASP (Consortium of Local Authority Special Programme) college. Between 1957 and the 80s, CLASP provided a set of basic, approved  architectural designs for community buildings - not just schools, but clinics, libraries, community centres and even fire stations) for use across the UK (for more on this system, read Chris Matthews' fascinating piece on the legacy of CLASP buildings in Nottinghamshire and beyond on his blog,  Internet Curtains ).

 Economies of scale, partial prefabrication, standardisation of sizes of classrooms and gyms and assembly halls - all of these things made for cheaper but not necessarily poorer quality buildings. If the basic design had been hideous or hideously wrong, it would  of course have been a different matter - but these modest buildings, in schoolyard Corbusier  manage to fit in, to rub shoulders with many older styles without seeming to be rude or aloof.

Yes, they were designed for a time when  education theory was different: there was optimism, the child was to be at the centre of learning, the schools were as far as possible open plan and filled with light. These were anti-austerity buildings in a way, modernist, but they were also utilitarian in the good sense of the word - they served a purpose (I hate to use the modern version of that phrase, 'fit for purpose').

So, back to Brixton Hill - and just look at  the courtyard or quadrangle. Even in its current entirely neglected state, it's a godsend, a breathing space, a lovely echo for Brixton's ESOL and other students of the classic style of old universities. To modern ways of thinking, it is just a waste of space.

The building is friendly, unshowy,  and it works - although I've no doubt it costs too much to heat in winter and that it probably gets over-hot in summer. These issues could have been addressed with adequate investment, maintenance and improvements back in the 80s and 90s.

Instead, they let the building get a bit run down, then say no-one likes it any more. Half the site has already gone to a so-called free school. Now the remaining bit, fronting Brixton Hill, seems destined to be destroyed. It still houses most of Lambeth's ESOL classes and at certain times of day the place is buzzing with hundreds of different languages.

It's true the place is underused, especially in the evenings, and staff cuts mean the excellent library is not  open late, which is a real shame.

I tell you, I infinitely prefer the old school style of this place to the stomach churning colour schemes, garish carpets and gormless sloganeering of the modern equivalents -- all those purples and green carpets, the silly wooden cladding,  those inane slogans you get painted in huge letters on the walls of  21st century schools and colleges, the annoying curves and confusing layout. Visit the newest Lambeth College building, at Clapham Common, and you will see what I mean - it's a nightmare to find your way around this place, and after less than a decade it is already looking a bit frayed.

Maybe I am just a 60s nostalgist  - but I will miss this place, and am glad at least I chose to do a course there in its latter days.

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