Bureaucrat of the Year

Hilary Cottam won Designer of the Year for her work on Kingsdale School in south London, even though she didn’t design it. Old boy James Heartfield reports.

The Design Museum recently awarded Hilary Cottam the £25,000 Designer of the Year award, in part for the redevelopment of Kingsdale School in south London. But why, when she didn’t design it? (1)

There was always something phoney about the excitement around the redevelopment of Kingsdale Comprehensive School. Maybe it was because I could not recognise the picture of a disaster-prone school painted by the architect Alex De Rijke, when he said that Kingsdale was a ‘mistake born of a socialist dream’, adding that ‘it is a black school in a white community and a poor school in a rich community’. PG Wodehouse spent the happiest days of his life in the elite Dulwich College just over the wall, but my days at Kingsdale in the 1970s were pretty pleasant, too.

It was 15 per cent black when I went there, and it is around 50 per cent black today, but that in itself is no reason for failure. True, the relocation of children from William Penn (or ‘Billy Biro’, which once decamped en masse to march on Kingsdale for a bundle), as well as other closing schools, did make Kingsdale something of a sink school. But exaggerating the problems was part of talking up recent reforms.

Covering the redevelopment last year I was aware that the Design Council’s Hilary Cottam had something to do with the project (2). But then, there were so many people claiming responsibility it was easy to get them confused. Waiting outside the head’s office, 20 years on from the last time, it was clear that Kingsdale’s headmasters are all touched with megalomania. In 1973, Mr Rees was ensconced in his office addressing the school through a tannoy system (this was eventually seized by rebellious school leavers, who played reggae music over it). Today, Steve Morrison has a promotional video on a tape loop for his visitors. Morrison has used the redevelopment to galvanise the school, like Napoleon uses the building of the Windmill in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (you see, I did learn something at Kingsdale).

Eager to demonstrate that it was doing something about education, the government put £12million into the rebuild. Even the policy wonks at Demos had input, though their suggestion that children were being dragooned by the school bell only revealed that they had never spent long enough in the school to hear the tannoyed electronic pips that demarcate lessons.

Architect Philip Morgan, of de Rijke, Marsh and Morgan (dRMM), is part of the team that has been ripped off by the Design Museum’s award. He put in many hours at the school, even consulting with children about what they wanted, in the super-indulgent ethos of the project. The biggest problem, he explained, was the cheese-paring techniques that Sir Leslie Martin’s original Greater London Council (GLC) team had adopted to spin out scarce raw materials. I can remember the idiosyncratic plaster honeycomb wall interiors that Marsh’s team was struggling with - every morning we climbed through a hole kicked through those walls to our registration class.

But we knew then that Sir Leslie’s original was something very special, halfway between Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (which you could not see in the 1970s, but you could read the Ballantine photo-book) and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Of course it was alienating, with its glass-enclosed concrete stairwells and futuristic quad, but that was the appeal. We called the tannoy system Big Brother.

dRMM’s rebuild is as postmodernist as the original was modernist. A wooden pod housing a new hall nestles against one wall of Leslie Martin’s quad, whose roof is now covered with a curved Polaroid skin to protect today’s little dears from the elements. Computer-aided design helps dRMM’s curvilinear doodling on top of Sir Leslie’s set-square-drawn isometric boxes. It is quite cute, but not nearly as bold as the original, and just a little bit busy. ‘Why’, you could imagine Sir Leslie asking, ‘did they not build a new school?’

The subsequent dispute over credit for the project shows up all the weaknesses of today’s kudos-hungry design bureaucracy. Hilary Cottam is, as the Design Museum acknowledges, not a designer, though still ‘Designer of the Year’. Worse still, the museum has exhibited dRMM’s drawings uncredited, as illustrations of Cottam’s innovation at Kingsdale. What Cottam did was to kickstart the project, and introduce investors. Design Museum trustee Sebastian Conran complains that one might as well nominate HarperCollins for the Booker Prize.

In an industry preoccupied with intellectual property rights, the Design Museum’s award seems peculiarly crass. But it is characteristic of the burgeoning design bureaucracy that it should want to take the credit for the work of designers. These officials, lacking much pride in the real work they do, like to imagine themselves instead as being ‘creatives’, too, where once they would have been happy to see themselves as civic leaders. But then, as writer James Kelman says, ‘Art is not the product of “the cultural workforce”, a term I first discovered in 1990 and which seems to refer to those who administer public funding and/or private sponsorship for “arts initiatives”’ (3).

Chancellor Gordon Brown’s recent move to commission the Design Council to put design at the forefront of British business has increased the ambitions of the administrators. The Design Council, which already has a reputation for ripping off other people’s ideas without credit, is eager to ride on the growing status of the ‘creative industries’. Unfortunately for the Council, the real contribution of design to industrial success is limited, and declining in the UK, as its own research shows.

Along with the Design Museum, the Design Business Association, the Design Skills Board and the Creative and Cultural Skills organisation, the Design Council is a part of a top-heavy bureaucracy that is trying to advance its cause on the back of a relatively small industry - about 5,000 firms, many quite small businesses, whose earnings are in any event falling precipitately (4). Back in 1998, when government first got interested in the Creative Industries, designer Wayne Hemingway pleaded with it not to bury this fragile flower under a mass of ‘initiatives’ and officialdom. Bureaucrat Hilary Cottam’s award for Designer of the Year, for a refurbishment of a school that she did not even draft, shows that his advice fell on deaf ears.

James Heartfield’s The Creativity Gap: Why Less Hype Is More Innovation In The Culture Sector was published as a Blueprint Broadside on 15 May 2005. Order a copy here.

(1) This was noted in Design award row engulfs ‘super school’, 12 June2005

(2) ‘Fixing a hole’, Times Education Supplement, May 2004; ‘Building School Success’, Prospect, October 2004

(3) James Kelman, ‘Art and subsidy’, in Farqhuar McLay (ed), The Reckoning: Beyond the Culture City Rip Off, Clydeside Press, 1990, p 130

(4) See the Design Valuation Survey conducted by the British Design Initiative

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