A Life in Education and Architecture – Mary Beaumont (Crowley) Medd

burke_series 1324 cover.QXD:a life in educationCatherine Burke’s book on the architect Mary Beaumont (Crowley) Medd was reviewed by Harriet Harriss earlier this year in the Times Higher Ed

Burke, a historian of education, shows mastery of her subject here and delivers it through a light, accessible style… Burke’s book offers everything from an education and practice manifesto to a compelling romance. The narrative overlays within the text capture valuable insights into the infrastructure of key design projects, including clients, creative collaborators and educators working towards a common enterprise.

You can read Catherine Burke’s full introduction to the book on the Ashgate website, but to whet your appetite, here is an edited extract:

The architect Mary Beaumont Crowley (1907–2005), was one of a number of individuals who, in the twentieth century, devoted their professional lives in pursuit of a form of education for children and young people that would be best described as child centered in its values, principles, practices and essential humanity. During her professional career, she advised on the educational principles that should underpin the design of many buildings later listed as of historical and architectural significance, and her methods of detailed observation and evaluation of the work of children and teachers in schools earned her a reputation among educationalists in England as the key player behind the changes in the design of schools achieved during the second half of the twentieth century.

This book is addressed to educators and architects who are interested in the perennial question – what makes a good school? Mary was one of a generation of architects who designed schools for the public sector in the post war years during the largest and most extended British school building programme of the twentieth century.

The impetus behind this book was a hunch and a question about relationships in educational history. Returning by train from visiting a nursery in Nottingham one Friday in June 2005, I read about the life of Mary (Crowley) Medd in her obituary, jointly authored for The Guardian by architectural historians, Andrew Saint and Lynne Walker. I read for the first time about Mary, acknowledged as a driving force for change among a team of predominantly male architects in the Ministry of Education where she made contacts with the best teachers, learned what they were trying to do and watched children in and out of classes … and by bringing this direct and – far rarer among architects – systematic observation of habits and needs to bear on designing schools, she acquired unique authority in primary school planning.

The hunch I had, and thereafter tried to follow, was that Mary as a female architect was able to establish a special and unique form of empathy with the predominantly female teaching force in primary schools at the time. I wondered whether as a woman, she was advantaged in acquiring a special understanding of the relationships that underpinned pedagogy and its development. In so doing, I began to question whether it was this special understanding that had fostered in post-war England the emergence of a new and rich knowledge about key relationships between pedagogy and the material context of schools.

As in much historical research, one’s initial notions become challenged in the process of seeking out the evidence and exploring the wider context. However it soon became clear that there were indeed significant relationships that shaped Mary’s life and practice that fundamentally influenced her approach to the design of schools for young children. Uncovering the nature of these relationships became the substance of this book and particularly how they found expression through Mary’s endeavours to further innovative educational practice within public schooling in post-war England and Wales.

Since her death in 2005, Mary’s papers, consisting of a substantial archive of diaries, photographic albums, letters, plans and publications, have been deposited in the Newsam Archive at the Institute of Education, University of London. These complement an existing archive of materials related to the activities of the Architect and Buildings Branch of the Ministry of Education (later DES). Mary’s personal papers contain materials relating to her infancy and childhood, family life and school days at several schools including Bedales; study in Switzerland; experiences as a student at the Architectural Association from 1927–1932; travel in Europe, including influential visits to Scandinavia; work on housing during the 1930s; wartime planning at the Hertfordshire Education Department; travel during the immediate post-war period; marriage and professional work with David Medd including substantial international engagement; and consultancy work both at home and abroad in retirement.

These documents, of a life well lived, have shaped the narrative of this book. The archive has also shaped the research journey I have taken over the years since Mary Crowley’s death. Questions raised by reading diary entries and travel journals and browsing plans prompted meetings and conversations with her husband David Medd. I met David on several occasions and talked for hours about Mary’s personality and career in the house at Harmer Green, Welwyn North that she and he had designed together in the early 1950s. Surrounded by the garden she had loved and nurtured, the piano she played so well over many decades, the furniture designed by David and the lampshades by Alvar Aalto, I tried to understand the extraordinary impact of this modest character who was, according to those who knew her best, so frustratingly self-effacing yet exceedingly driven.

David took a great interest in my efforts to understand Mary’s contribution to the design of schools in the twentieth century and in addition to the meetings, wrote me scores of letters, each one handwritten and densely filled with notes of detail that enriched the research. But David told me, ‘you want to get in a bit more – you want to give the impression you’ve done more than reading!’ From these conversations and letters the international scope of Mary’s influence and influences became more apparent and so, taking David’s suggestion seriously, part of my efforts to understand Mary eventually included visiting some of the places that were of especial importance in her life and career. To understand as fully as possible some of the references Mary made in her diaries, I journeyed to these places and tried to see through her eyes and sense through the images she made in pen and ink, the past as she experienced it. Following in Mary’s footsteps, I tried to estimate to what extent it is true that ‘in different places we are different people’.

Architectural history need not be just about buildings or architects but can also be about relationships, values and how these inform the process of architectural practice. Therefore, the book is structured around different aspects of the relationship between education and architecture that shaped Mary’s life and legacy. It explores the significance and impact of a rich and long life whose earliest years were spent at a time of great change in the worlds of education and architecture, when the teaching profession was becoming established and when pupils were coming to be viewed in new ways that suggested the need to make arrangements for a completely new concept of a school.

Alongside a new view of the developing child in an appropriate environment there was at the same time emerging a new modernist architecture with an emphasis on function and social value. Each chapter in this book is organized around the available documentation that reveals the significant places, architecture, art and friendships that featured during Mary’s long life, the projects she engaged with and the individuals and communities of educators, artists and designers with whom she was associated.

In the twenty-first century, when planned renewal of school building stock is high on government agendas across the world, this life that brought together education and architecture so successfully is highly relevant. The examples discussed consider the legacy that connects Mary Crowley’s life with contemporary concerns of educators and architects who are challenged with the responsibility of designing schools for a rapidly changing world.

Of course there are many more avenues that this account could have taken. The many years of dedicated consultancy work across the world in Mary’s later years have not been covered in any detail but there is a summary of the substantial contribution Mary made across the world during these years. Nor have I considered the many musical, dramatic and artistic interests she pursued with her husband. These gaps will be filled by others who might be inspired to take up one or more of the roads left unexplored here. The emphasis has been on redressing the balance between the large and noisy histories of architects who have designed schools with this account that argues for the importance of telling the quiet stories in nurturing children and designing for education.

About the Author: Dr Catherine Burke is an historian and senior lecturer in education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She has researched Mary Medd’s life and travels since the architect’s death in 2005, while at the same time engaging with architects designing schools today to bring about a better understanding of the history of the subject. Other related publications include The School I’d Like (2003) and School (2008) both with Ian Grosvenor.

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