Guy Nelson’s legacy

by agwelch

I recently attended the pre-launch of the Design Museum’s new site, the Commonwealth Institute in South Kensington (pictured below). As I walked around the building, which has stood unoccupied for the best part of a decade, I was transported back to Warwick School’s own 1960s behemoth, the Guy Nelson Hall (GNH).

Commonwealth Institute exterior

Commonwealth Institute interior

The Commonwealth Institute was completed in 1962 and with its low brickwork and paraboloid copper roof is regarded by English Heritage as one of the key examples of post-war British modernist architecture. However, this style is admired by few (typically only certain echelons of the architectural elite) and, before the Design Museum took on the building, many were lobbying for its demolition.

Our own GNH, commissioned in the late 1960s and operational by 1970, is a somewhat more humble building, yet in local architects Rayner and Fedeski’s combination of brickwork and building-height windows, alongside a cavernous central hall tapering towards a proscenium stage, we can sense the guiding hand of the Commonwealth Institute’s Brit modernism.

Now the future of the GNH hangs in the balance as whispers abound that it has reached the end of its useful life. Can a case be made for preserving the GNH as an example of a particular moment in British schools building? If it is to be flattened, how will it be remembered by Warwickians?

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The Guy Nelson Hall has always been an unpopular edifice. From its building, through its opening, to its current occupation, it has resisted affection.

For a Warwickian of my vintage (1993-2004) the GNH meant being corralled by prefects in advance of full school assembly, or, once one got the tie, doing the herding. It was no mean feat squeezing the entire school into the hall and, as numbers swelled, assembly became standing room only and, latterly, the foyer had to be utilized – albeit offering the occupants a restricted view of the headmaster’s platitudes.

I recall there to have been a certain amount of politics and social maneuvering associated with where one positioned oneself. Lower School oiks had no option but to occupy the front few rows beneath the watchful gaze of the be-gowned staff flanking the headmaster onstage.

Reaching upper school gave the conscious assembly-goer more options. You could opt for one of the rows elevated by the steps three-quarters of the way back in the hall; this gave you an uninterrupted view over hundreds of greasy scalps – a dress circle for would-be toffs and peacocks.

You might be tempted to mix it with those standing around the fringes, although, this was primarily the reserve of the sixth-form and the presence of an upstart 5th former could be unwelcome. Perhaps counter intuitively, to mill around the edges was an indication of status – a marker that one was too important or too bored by proceedings to bother sitting. This thinking extended to the staff, with left-leaning members of the common room preferring to slum it, gownless, with the hoi polloi.

Perhaps the only other position of note, which came into play only in my later years, was to find a seat in the foyer such that one was completely disguised from the main hall, allowing one to go about the important business of texting or cramming Latin vocab unnoticed.

I digress but it is interesting to note that, according to original correspondence, the GNH was intended to have a capacity of 1,000. To anyone who has sat, or stood, through an assembly the hopeless ambition of this figure is evident. The safe, comfortable seated capacity is probably closer to 600.

Even worse than assemblies, the GNH meant public exams. You knew revision time was limited when, returning for the summer term, the rows of stacker chairs were replaced by utilitarian exam desks. In place of the headmaster’s plinth came the green baize info boards and those strange clocks on stalks, frequently glanced up at in mild-panic mid-paper.

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If the GNH meant anxiety for me, it was source of considerable frustration for the bursar, school handymen and senior staff who oversaw its construction. Sadly, from its conception, it seems to be an edifice of which the school has never been truly proud.

The GNH was one of the school’s first status projects of the modern era and, costing £84,000 in 1969, represented a sizeable investment. Unlike the contemporary construction of other out buildings, which strived to mimic the school’s prevailing architecture, the GNH was to be staunchly 1960s in style. Perhaps one of the problems was that by the time construction began it was 1969 and, as Withnail and I has it, “the greatest decade in the history of mankind” was coming to a close; as such the GNH was anachronistic in its own time.

According to Gervald Fykman (Warwick School: A History, Frykman & Hadley, 2004) funds were raised following an appeal to old boys, governors and the FOWs. However, it seems there was some shortfall in moneys collected and the balance had to be covered by a loan. The consequence was that if a costly corner could be cut, it probably was. Even during construction, back-and-forth correspondence between the bursar (Major PB Waterman) and various contractors suggests that controlling cost was becoming a serious concern.

Evidence shows haggling over unsatisfactory furnishings, a debate as to the cheapest means of installing gas pipes, and the bursar accepting the services of a parent, Mr DJ Watkins, to manage the landscaping and gardens gratis.

Furthermore, a number of problems seem to have beset the building from its opening. Radiators malfunction, doors are stiff and the ladies W.C suffers from a number of “loose seats”. The bursar appears to be engaged in one trouble-shooting exercise after another.

We ask now whether the GNH is fit for purpose. Perhaps the question ought to be: was it ever?

I am indebted to the kindness of school archivist Gervald Frykman who shared with me a number of documents relating to the commissioning and building of the GNH.

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