Hunstanton School

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

Too hot in summer, too cold in winter - although acclaimed, this school suffered some fundamental problems.

Hunstanton Smithdon High School Creative commons image Icon Xavier de Jauréguiberry under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

Architects:
Peter and Alison Smithson, (Britain)

 

Construction Date:
1949-1954

Location:
Norfolk

Welfare State Modernism

The 1944 Education Act was an important catalyst for the arrival of the Welfare State in Britain, which in itself helped to bring Modernism to the fore during the post-war years.

Within a decade of the passing of the Act, the government had built 2,500 schools. Among them was the Secondary School at Hunstanton (often known as Hunstanton School), designed by the ferociously intellectual architectural couple, Peter and Alison Smithson.

Completed in 1954, Hunstanton School epitomised the architectural experimentation of post-war Britain, as well as the growing acceptance of modernism by the public authorities.

The Smithsons were two of the most influntial British architects of the post war years. Intelligent, and passionately committed to the belief that architecture could change people's lives for the better, they spent years devising radical schemes to improve Britain's public buildings. But they were also among the first to recognise the dangers of Modernism and its often destructive effect on communities.

And for much of the 1950s and 1960s, they searched for ways to make their vision of modernism more sensitive to the society in which it existed.

Another Glass in the Wall

The Smithsons won the competition to design the school. At the time, it caused much excitement in the architectural profession, and was widely praised for its rigid lines and intelligent layout.

The Smithsons deliberately left many of the service elements of the school exposed, even making a feature of the water tank by turning it into a tower, and the cold steel frames and walls of glass echoed the work of Mies Van Der Rohe.

Classrooms were accessible only by stairs, not positioned on long corridors, with the effect that they were set apart from the hubbub of the spaces below.

The critic Reyner Banham later dubbed the Smithsons' pared-down style "the New Brutalism", and although Hunstanton perhaps doesn't fit this description, there is no doubt that the Modernism of Hunstanton School is in stark contrast to the more gentle, sensuous Modernism of the Royal Festival Hall, opened in 1951 and the building which, in many ways, signalled official acceptance of the Modern Movement in Britain.

Despite the acclaim with which Hunstanton School was greeted in 1954, its design has posed practical problems for the generations of schoolchildren who had been educated there. The vast expanses of glass walls (so striking and different from the Victorian-era school buildings then common) certainly allowed natural light to flood into the classrooms as intended, but also caused the building to heat up like a greenhouse in the summer and froze those inside in the winter.

Black panels have since been added to counteract this. Nonetheless, it remains popular with those who use it today, and has proved to be something of a blueprint for British school buildings since.

Problems To Come

The success of the school marked a high point in the career of Alison and Peter Smithson. Only the Economist Building (1964) was as popular. The rest of their career can be seen as a battle against the problems of Modernism- from the rigid town planning of CIAM, which they left in 1956, to their unpopular social housing at Robin Hood Gardens (1972).

Hunstanton stands as a reminder of the optimistic, egalitarian country of the Festival of Britain years, and also as a reminder of the problems to come. The Smithsons launched their attack on the CIAM orthodoxy in 1953. By the time Hunstanton School was opened one year later, the first cracks in the newfound British acceptance of the Modern Movement were already showing.

 

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