Denis Clarke Hall

Architect who set new standards in post-war school design


Denis Lucian Clarke Hall, architect: born Hornchurch, Essex 4 July 1910; President, Architectural Association 1958-59; Chairman, Architects Registration Council of the UK 1963-64; married 1936 Fiona Garfitt (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Iping, West Sussex 31 July 2006.

Denis Clarke Hall was one of architecture's last links to the 1930s. In 1937, having just qualified as an architect, he won a competition run by the progressive News Chronicle for an ideal secondary school. This was well in advance of the reforms in the 1940s that made secondary education universal.

Clarke Hall's scheme, and the accompanying report that looked at lighting, heating, ventilation and acoustics, as well as functional planning, set new standards not only for school design but also for the emerging field of building science. In particular, the classrooms had natural light from two sides to protect children's eyesight from strain. Mounted, the plan was so long that it could not fit in a taxi and Clarke Hall nearly missed the deadline for submissions. He himself considered the report to be as influential as the design.

Born in 1910, Denis Clarke Hall grew up on a smallholding near Hornchurch in Essex. His father, Sir William Clarke Hall, was a magistrate who with the barrister Benjamin Waugh founded the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Denis's mother, Waugh's daughter Edna, was an artist and a friend of Augustus and Gwen John, often taking her two sons, Justin and Denis, as her subjects. Denis Clarke Hall attended Bedales School and, being interested in science, entered King's College London, only to find the course disappointing and to leave after a year.

His father sent him to the newly opened National Institute of Industrial Psychology, which recommended architecture as appropriate to his mix of scientific and woodworking skills. So Clarke Hall went to the Architectural Association, which was to become the most progressive architecture school in Britain by 1940, but which in 1930 was still largely traditional. His final-year dissertation was on the uses and applications of concrete, when he was advised by the engineer Ove Arup, then a studio tutor.

Clarke Hall subsequently worked for Clive Entwistle, who introduced him to the Modern Architectural Research (Mars) Group - the vanguard of British modernism. He also met Walter Gropius, without realising the importance of the Bauhaus; the News Chronicle design was entirely drawn from first principles.

The competition win secured Clarke Hall's career as a specialist schools architect. He was commissioned by the Education Officer for the North Riding of Yorkshire to realise a version of his design as the Richmond Girls' High School, now the sixth form centre of Richmond School. It was a rare example of the 1930s Modern Movement in northern England. But, as Clarke Hall explained in an article to be published shortly by the Twentieth Century Society, when he saw the historic town of Richmond he realised that a strictly modern design would be inappropriate.

Instead, he and Arup combined load-bearing walls of local stone with concrete construction, realising a synthesis of modern and traditional elements that marked a progression for British architecture frustrated by the war. The school was completed in 1940, its windows arriving miraculously from Switzerland and with furniture designed by Alvar Aalto.

Clarke Hall recognised that a greater austerity of design would follow the war. In 1938 he produced a report on production methods in housing that led him in 1941 to join the Committee for the Industrial and Scientific Provision of Housing. He was also one of two architect members of the Wood Committee, set up by the Ministry of Education in 1943 to consider standardised construction and layouts for the new schools needed after the war.

But prefabrication proved an impossible ideal, as Clarke Hall quickly realised, because of the difficulty of assembling large numbers of elements from different sources, and he returned to traditional construction. Between 1948 and 1973 he designed 27 schools for 11 local authorities, including many in North Yorkshire, and he produced a system of top lighting for Middlesex County Council, the government having adopted his principles of natural light as a requirement for all schools. Clarke Hall thus influenced all post-war school design.

His most ambitious post-war secondary school was that at Cranford, Middlesex, which in 1950-53 introduced a strikingly compact and economical square plan that was very different from the Richmond Girls' High School; adjoining Heathrow, it closed in 1985 because of the noise. Clarke Hall was also the assessor for the Hunstanton School competition won by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1950 and, against strong local opposition, championed their rigidly symmetrical design.

He also designed housing in Hornchurch and near St Pancras Station, and civic centres in Egham, Surrey, and Cranbrook, Kent, where he was asked for a design that again fused modern and traditional elements in a historic setting. He was proud that all these buildings were directly commissioned, and that he never again had to enter a competition.

Clarke Hall retired in 1973 because of ill-health. It was thus remarkable to meet him nearly thirty years later, full of energy and a vivid raconteur and art lover.

Elain Harwood

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