Space people\

We asked the artist Bob and Roberta Smith to contribute an essay. Here he reflects on his formative years at school and how space, place and the idea of the ‘social’ has shaped him and his practice.

In Wandsworth where I grew up, Mayfield Comprehensive School has been renamed Burntwood Academy, (it says everything really), and my school called Wandsworth Comprehensive has been pulled down. Mayfield was the complimentary girl’s school to Wandsworth Boys School. Both schools were huge modernist 60’s era sub le Corbusier machines for learning.

Wandsworth Boy School was enormous. When I first went there 2000 children were studying. There was some great teaching and some terrible teaching. The Boy’s choir sung Benjamin Britain operas at the Royal Albert Hall whilst kids beat the hell out of each other in the playground. There was fencing with epees and foils and there was dealing with weed and pills. Everyone was there, wealthy kids and poor kids and lots of oddball late developers like me. Now the school has gone and with it its ethos of building a more equal society. It was the physical manifestation of a utopian idea that all people deserve the best, that children develop at different rates and have diverse aptitudes. The school had its own kilns, a planetarium, a darkroom, print room, gyms and playing fields. There was a computer lab with computers that used futuristic paper tape with punch holes.

Entering the school was like entering a city.

Entering the school was like entering a city.

I love the architecture that sprang up after world war two. I love the sculpture that adorns it by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Reg Butler. I have tried to highlight the plight of a threatened Henry Moore sculpture. I am a 20th century junkie. I am also an 1880s and 90s junkie. William Morris and the arts and crafts movement had vision that I have benefited from personally. Whilst at school I was sent to see a show of paintings by Max Beckman at the Whitechapel Gallery designed by Charles Harrison Townsend in London’s east end. After studying Beckman’s paintings and through them understanding something of the Weimar Republic we were taken into the huge upstairs space and given large sheets of paper and told to forget about the paintings and just make something big! The scale of the space, the generosity of the offer and I think the ethos of Arts and Crafts nurturing ignited something in me that afternoon. I realized I did not want to do anything else but make images and surfaces, sculptures and films in huge spaces about ideas that challenged me.

Virginia Woolf’s notion of ‘a room of my own’ resonates with artists whether they are female or male. Physical space is not only mental space, but also political space.

I have become angry at our governments desire to pare down schools. Michael Gove is not only shrinking the curriculum, pushing out the arts but he is also limiting the physical possibilities of schools. He even wants to make school corridors narrower. I am campaigning to get the Government to take space more seriously. Space for art in the curriculum but also space for thinking, freedom to innovate, freedom for kids to diagnose them selves what they will be amongst a broad array of subjects. Schools should be like petri dishes and classes like agar jelly. We should celebrate what comes out of schools not try to beat children into conformity.

I am not a post war era romantic. Schools do need to evolve. In a digital era all kids are going to need to be spatial designers because they will design the products and services that they feel the world needs.

It’s all about space.

I now teach opposite the Whitechapel Gallery at The Cass, which has recently teamed up with an amazing school of architecture. Last week I gave a lecture with Peter St John about Caruso St John’s New Art Gallery Walsall where I was in residence between 2009 till 2011. I showed an image of the Faite L’Art pas la Guerre sculpture that I developed with David Bickle for the Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square. Now the Fourth Plinth project is under threat from people who want to put Margaret Thatcher on the plinth. Public space, like public funding and notions of freedom are deeply political. Artists, writers, architects and theatre people are beginning to come together to join the great feminist thinker Hanna Arendt in declaring Freedom has to be democratic, associative and performative. No No No to Maggie on the Fourth Plinth, but yes to a more expansive view of the social value of great design. Are we moving from a ‘Mayfield’ Britain of springtime and bees to a wintery Burntwood Britain? I hope not.

“It’s all about space.”

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