A comprehensive cock-up

Will Pimlico School, monument to late-Sixties progress, become a monument to Major's Private Finance Initiative? And will Jack Straw's statue be in the playground?
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The Independent Culture
Pimlico School stands as a forward-looking monument to a forward- looking education policy founded by the Labour governments of 1964-70. Commissioned by the former Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and designed by John Bancroft, an architect specialising in education buildings for the Greater London Council (abolished by Mrs Thatcher in 1986), this radical and striking building symbolises the values of an optimistic era in which public spending on a democratic form of comprehensive education was considered to be the way forward to a literate and skilled workforce and a happier, wealthier society. Today the school is under threat of demolition. Westminster City Council and the board of governors want a new school paid for by a private developer from whom it plans to lease classrooms. If they succeed, not only will the country lose a fascinating building and pupils a school they like, but the replacement will be the first education building resulting from the Major government's questionable Private Finance Initiative (PFI), whereby the private sector is encouraged by carrots galore to pay for public-sector architecture.

The chairman of the school's board of governors is a barrister called Jack Straw. This is the same Jack Straw who is Shadow Home Secretary, and in a previous incarnation was the fiery and radical President of the National Union of Students (1969-71) at the time Pimlico School (1967- 70) was built.

It seems both disturbing and remarkable that Mr Straw should be resolutely in favour of a philistine policy that promises to lower the tone and undermine what remains of public-sector architecture. If his sanctioning of a PFI venture at Pimlico is indicative of a future Labour government's attitude towards architecture and the public realm, we should consider voting ... well, not Tory, for PFI is their policy. New Labour, in the case of Pimlico School, is beginning, as critics have accused it over the past months, to look remarkably like old Tory.

The case of Pimlico School is worth close attention, for if this is the future of public architecture in Britain, and specifically, the future of buildings for education, we should begin to worry. Parents of pupils at Pimlico School have already begun to worry, but their governors and the late-flowering Thatcherite council is against them.

Pimlico School, standing no more than a mile from the Palace of Westminster, occupies four densely packed acres of central London, an adventurous concrete and glass abstract in a handsome urban canvas of tall and gently distinguished Italianate stucco Victorian terraces. Pimlico has had its ups and downs over the past 50 years, but today is home to a broad cross-section of London life as well as scores of cheap hotels clinging like limpets to Victoria coach and railway stations.

The school has done well since its opening a quarter of a century ago, its pupils achieving an above-average success in national exams. Like the better known Holland Park Comprehensive a couple of miles to its north and west, Pimlico School has attracted a high number of sons and daughters of left-wing and liberal professionals, architects amongst them.

The school - one complete building with no annexes or wobbly bits - occupies a modern city square created by the design and construction of the school itself.

An imposing central street runs the length of the school, linking each room and activity within it. This is popular with pupils and the device has become a hallmark of some of the best local authority schools that have taken up where John Bancroft left off, and notably in the much praised schools designed for Hampshire County Council under the aegis of Colin Stansfield-Smith, the county architect.

This is the rosy side of the picture. The other side is thorny, revealing a building that has been difficult to heat and cool. When Sir Nikolaus Pevsner came this way to write up the school for London: Volume One in his Buildings of England series, he noted "Raw concrete and glass, all the glazing sloping as in hothouses ... will there not be a hot-house effect, at least on the S Side?" He was right.

Westminster City Council which owns the school today claims, although this is unsubstantiated, that it costs pounds 370,000 a year to maintain. Surely, the council and Jack Straw argue, everyone - pupils, teachers, parents, Westminster - would be better off if the Bancroft school was demolished and a new one built by a PFI-approved developer who would rush up luxury flats with a school attached designed by its own architect and then lease the latter back to the council. Profits all round and a nice'n'cool new school designed in an inoffensive style.

Whether or not you consider the PFI approach to public architecture seedy or not, even Westminster Council is now unsure that the project will work.

Just before Christmas, Taylor Woodrow, the developer tipped to win the bid to build the ace new flats with quite a nice new school attached pulled out of the running. "Bidding was expensive and time-consuming," said a spokesman for the company, "and ultimately the timetable for the project was unfavourable." Read into that whatever you want.

Mowlem, a developer eliminated from the bidding process has now been asked to step in, while, just to prove how judicious Westminster and the school's board of governors have been in their tip-top list of developers, Costain, another possible choice, has had its shares suspended and is currently subject of a Malaysian takeover.

The topsy-turvy, here-and-now nature of private enterprise is worrying Pimlico parents who are campaigning to stop the rot and to defend the school for demolition. Celebrities, including Yehudi Menuhin and Lord Asa Briggs, the historian are backing their cause. With a little effort and imagination, as architect parents know, the Bancroft building can be renewed with no need for demolition or the loss of school land to luxury flats.

Meanwhile, conservation bodies including the Twentieth Century Society and DoCoMoMo (the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement) have been campaigning to see the building listed. Virginia Bottomley, secretary of state for National Heritage, has refused to do this. In fact, although her motives may be wrong (Mrs B is hardly likely to enjoy Bancroft's design), listing might only hinder attempts to make the existing building work as well as it ought to.

Pimlico School is a dramatic and fascinating building that is never likely to inspire love or even much affection. However, even if it makes sense to demolish it and build anew, the school itself and the local education authority should set about choosing its own architect, writing its own brief and commissioning a building that owes everything to the future education of pupils and nothing to commercial expediency. As a case study of what happens to our schools under either a Tory or, it seems, Labour government, Pimlico School deserves our attention. To fight to keep it (and, of course, to improve it) is to fight for the future of public education, untrammelled by the concerns of commerce, and for the architecture, noble, if sometimes flawed, that has framed it this centuryn

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