Organising a four-day conference on flexible and sustainable learning provided the perfect excuse for a range of events over two weeks, to explore overlooked aspects of our London campuses and get out and about in our spaces. On day one, our opening activity was a detective tour in and around an arts and crafts building in Lime Grove, South West London, which has had many iterations in terms of its inhabitants, purpose, life cycle and surroundings in the course of a century. To close, we had a wildlife tour of this urban site, which has had much work in the last twelve months to green up our outdoor spaces and make them more becoming to flora, birds, and fauna, as well as humans.
The flexible part was about us moving in, through and outside the space, interpreting and reviewing its history through contemporary eyes, and thinking about how we could make more of the opportunities our immediate environments provide. The sustainable part was about thinking about what had endured, what did not and how this building and its environs might constitute a resource to foster learning for sustainability. This was as much about relationships and human well being, as it was about re-using and recycling, or spotting the less sustainable uses of the site and its materials. An itemised account of the bricks and mortar will probably not mean much to anyone unfamiliar with it, so I’ll skip that bit, however the conversations and connections that led to the creation of the tour and its outcomes offer themes which may well surface if others are intrigued enough to try it in their own spaces.
We became conscious that we don’t always know the full story of the spaces we work in: we tend to skim their most recent surface and use them as the backdrop for our ‘busyness’ (unless they are well know and well documented architectural or historic locations). Deciding to rummage around in the history of the building came about through chance reminiscences from a format occupant, which inspired us to find out more. Reconstructing its story was made possible thanks to him and past users, who made time to stop by and walk corridors that they had trodden decades previously.
This was not a forensic historic investigation, nor did it take very long to prepare, so the resulting narrative was partial, however it generated a warmth of interest and curiosity about the site that had not been present previously. We had one hour to tour in, and pieced together a ten stop route, each point illustrated by the quirkiest, historically interesting, amusing or relevant anecdote. Scripting and selecting these points was a democratic and valued activity involving only a handful of people, but who occupied roles in all parts of the organisation. Some of the most amusing memories referred to what cannot now be seen, such as the time Darth Vader pulled up in a taxi outside the front door to go into the (now demolished) tv studios opposite, or when Quentin Crisp posed as a life model in the third floor painting rooms ( site of our wearable labyrinths conversation). These were the kinds of things that we found and which excited us as we conducted this activity:
- that anecdotes of people’s use are every bit as important as the ‘factual’ stuff about who built it and when – the students who used to hide in the building over night to get projects finished, the pigeons who used to fly in through open windows in summer and redecorate work ready for exhibition…
- the richness of people’s memories and their willingness to reminisce
- how community spirit and a sense of common territory springs up when you investigate a particular building in detail and share its stories
- the importance of the things you can no longer see and the characters who used to occupy the space – the shop assistant who was so afraid of knives that he would not sell scalpels to the design students; the charitable home for fallen women ‘Urania Cottage’, set up in the street by the novelist Charles Dickens – ‘ to attempt the reclamation of women from the dregs of society in order to make them fit for new lives’; the brickwork of the building which showed traces of being used as a canvas for surveying by new building or interior design students; the quirks of past uses which are no longer recognised in the present spaces, old photos and archive materials revealing the artistry and care with which plumbing and joinery materials were arranged in workshops; the recollections of the ghostly piano player, whose music emanated from the staff common room but who was never seen…
- the things we overlook daily if we have no reason to seek them out (a door half way up a wall due to a long lost mezzanine floor, a window that looks out into the garden but which can’t be seen from the inside)
- the ways in which flexible and sustainable learning had been pre-empted decades before by building and arts students working in different parts of the building. The morning after examinations, a large skip parked outside the back doors would be routinely filled with models made by building apprentices. By nightfall the skip would be empty – twenty miniature staircases reclaimed by arts students for their projects or by tutors fancying a more ornate stand for their plant pots. Textiles students would fish out anything that could be woven, including electric cables…
- the ways in which greening even our most urban of sites provides an opportunity to strengthen relationships and a sense of pride and common purpose between those working on the projects – bird boxes, bug hotels, bee hives, wild life planting in the most unlikely of corners, and discussing with neighbours arrangements for growing fruits, vegetables and flowers over shared fences, wired netting and other common boundaries.
- Just by resisting, and reworking these spaces, any number of assumption- changing facts were shared and new information gathered; a talk about our bees (formerly housed on the roof of our site at Oxford Circus, in the heart of London’s West End) and now rehomed by the Lime Grove pond, opened our eyes to the special routines and behaviours of their existence, while keen gardeners and newbies were acquiring and transferring skills from home to college garden and back again. (My particular favourite here was the Bug Hotel, which I now want to recreate in my own surburban space)