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Testing Times by Catherine Croft

Building Design May 10, 2002

The bank holiday weekend saw the Art Workers Guild in use for an examination: Whitelands College, Local Examinations Teachers Certificate. Middle English (two hours).This "performance lecture" was written, presented and produced by Ewan Forster and Christopher Heighes, and rolled together an investigation of the work and personality of Giles Gilbert Scott with a broader exploration of the relationship between modern architecture in England and contemporary classical music. It also included a rowing trip to Dudok's town hall at Hilversum, practical demonstrations of road building and hurdle-making, and a whole lot more.

Middle English Rowing

Whilelands College was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in 1930 as a purpose-built home for an Anglican teacher-training college for women which was planning on moving out to Surrey from Chelsea (it's in Putney, and ended up as part of University of Surrey, Roeharnpton). The original foundation had been supported by Ruskin who gave it one of his famous Ruskin cabinets, described in Middle English as a "machine for learning", a piece of "didactic furniture" containing Ruskin approved framed prints, each sliding smoothly out with its own polished leather fob handle. Scott was asked to reuse fittings and Burne Jones stained glass from the original chapel in his new building, so the Ruskinian connections are very evident. Whitelands is about to be sold off. How will its new use make meaningful sense of its very particular history?



Forster and Heighes met in the late eighties when both werestudents on the BA course in Theatre Studies at Dartington College. After an initial stab at running their own small-scale touring companies and performing in conventional studio venues, they decided that they were more interested in site-specific work in "buildings whose fabric represents the ideas behind them”, and where they could experience a sense of rediscovering "something forgotten". Previous projects have included works at Mary Ward House and The Union Chapel in Islington.

The Mary Ward piece lasted a whole day and wrapped their "interrogation of the facade" (literally, apparently) with "real lectures" including Adrian Forty on the concept of "finish": Forster admits that they have "borrowed” the way he deconstructs a room". They have also taken a puppet show to the Architectural Association, where they were delighted by the fascination the students showed for their elaborate, hand-crafted props.

Forster and Heighes appear as themselves in Middle English, taking an exam of 10 questions, which superficially builds a highly rigorous structure to the evening. But ideas, themes and memories flood from one answer to the next, and gradually merge together ideas of a developing Middle England; Scott as an underrated architect whose Bankside Power Station has been recast as a Herzog & de Meuron masterpiece and whose Park Royal Brewery faces imminent demolition; and of language as anything but a fixed system.

It doesn't quite all gel together, but it is a rich and deeply evocative mix. When did you last (or ever) give serious consideration to smocking? Did you know that the Surrey Smock is the plainest, or that those of the Welsh Marches (exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851) are the most elaborate? Middle English likens Scott's brickwork to smocking: it has a "mesmeric textile quality", it is functional and flexible and can be simple or include stories and emblems. William Morris and Oscar Wilde approved of smocks; they had a hippy-ruralist revival and the pleating on an academic gown is essentially smocking, turning scholars into "urban shepherds".The smocking analogy is thus far more than just physical, but suggests !inks forwards and backwards, and a sense of cultural rootedness.

Forster and Heighes are slightly disingenuous when they announce that they "didn't bother to find out too much about Scott". They have dug much deeper than accepting Scott's own definition of modernism as "the absence of twiddly bits". They have also learnt how to split a log along its length with a froe (which makes an amazing sound and smells fantastic), and if they had more time would have treated the audience to a complete demonstration of how to make a gate hurdle (a "frighteningly beautiful artefact when new"). This prompts the image of Whitelands split in two "from chapel to boardroom and left to dry upon the lawn" – is this what developers will want to do? No, probably something far more banal.

What Middle English does is seek ciphers to understand not just Scott, but British architecture and culture in the thirties. Sitting in a wooden boat resting diagonally across the Art Workers Guild over a sea of giant thirties spec-built semi-detached dolls houses (which they have made themselves) are Forster and Heighes "rowing backwards facing forwards, or going forwards facing backwards?" Middle English doesn't unravel everything: it is an innovative vision which is mesmerising and provocative.

Part Two of Middle English will be an installation in the bell tower of Scott's Liverpool Cathedral in June 2004