F series School of Architecture

I was granted permission to create a large scale intervention at Colin St John Wilson and Alex Hardy’s extension building during the summer of 2002, when the students who usually occupy it were on holiday. Three weeks were spent restoring the first floor interior to a condition close to the architects’ original intentions, before works from F series were installed. Nicola and I met with St John Wilson and we went through his archive, unearthing a set of photographs and stories about the building that were shared with visitors to the exhibition and later published alongside Graham Murrell’s photographs.

The following extract from Concrete Evidence by Sarah Jackson in The Architects’ Journal touches on the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in the constructed world.

Two grey double square rectangles face you, offset against a rough, mottled brick wall. Shafts of light spill down from the roof coffers; one wall is washed with light. It is cloudy and the skies outside are changing quickly, but inside it is quiet and calm. The rectangles are slightly different shades, and from afar they seem thin and fragile. They don’t quite touch the wall or each other, they just hover. Up close, you realise that they are concrete panels – very fine concrete, certainly in comparison to the rough in situ concrete beams above. There is a slight shuttering grain, really just a ripple on the surface, and one or two bubbles; corners are exact and sharp.

The main body of this otherwise empty room is square, and the panels are placed offcentre on the main wall. It leads into a darker space, obviously a lecture room, as Robin Day plywood chairs wait in line, and the slide projector is whirring. There is a sense of expectancy, of waiting, but it takes some time to establish what you are there to see. The lectern, itself a veneered double square, is exactly illuminated by the projector. It is tightly focused, no light spills out.

This is an installation by Daniel Edwards, one from his F series installed in the Extension to the School of Architecture, Cambridge, during the summer of 2002. Colin St John Wilson and Alex Hardy’s robust little building, which was completed in 1959, has probably not looked as perfect since then.

Perversely, maybe unavoidably, schools of architecture do not seem to value the fabric or aesthetics of their buildings. Edwards had access to the building for six weeks during the summer holidays, and the first three were spent removing all the unoriginal accretions – boards, screws, paint, notices, inappropriate furniture – and then lovingly polishing it back to its former state. Holes were filled with coloured plasticine, floors cleaned, light bulbs replaced. A mixture of amateur conservation, basic maintenance and plain tlc. The resulting installation is an art and architecture collaboration that forces you to question both the objects themselves – in this case the two concrete double squares, and the more ethereal rectangle of light – and the building itself.

In the supporting exhibition documentation, which is itself beautifully produced by Edwards, reference is made to Reyner Banham’s The New Brutalism (1966). This book is relevant on several levels – its inclusion of the Extension to the School of Architecture helped make the building the canonic work it is, and it was an early (and continuing) influence on Edwards’ work. He has a strong rapport for architecture of this style and period (in fact, this F series was originally inspired by the Smithsons’ Economist Building), and he grapples with the same working morality questioned in the book – ethics or aesthetics?

Edwards says aesthetics, but there is an indisputable moral dimension to his work. He reworks themes tirelessly through series of projects, as if searching for an aesthetic ideal; F series followed on from E, D etc. All are multiple concrete panels, similar in conception, but with different proportions and surface treatment.

Edwards pursues his aesthetic goals with such depth and sincerity that you cannot but give him full respect. His work is not for those who like their art flashy; it is elegant, questioning and calm. He is, not surprisingly, delightfully modest, and while of course he would like everyone to appreciate his work, he is under no illusion that they will.

He is fortunate in that he does not rely on selling his work to make a living (he is a director of a special needs school), and so does not have to engage with the brash commercial art world. For Banham, ethical concerns outweighed aesthetics. Edwards states the reverse. But for both, the relationship is so intense, so intertwined, and so essential, that one wonders why one needs to choose.