Concrete king passes on
A brief appreciation of brutalist architect John Bancroft
It’s perhaps not surprising that news of the recent death of brutalist architect John Bancroft filtered out rather slowly. More than any other architect Bancroft was synonymous with just one building, the Pimlico school he designed and built in the Sixties then spent the rest of his life trying to save from destruction by those who opposed what it stood for.
Its design was as provocative as the educational policies in place in London at the time. The stepped section maximised light into the school and the basement was sunken to the level of the townhouse basements of the surrounding area.
Sadly it was out of date by the time it opened: the classroom shapes were out of step with new educational thinking, the head left soon after its opening and the heating and cooling system were promptly vandalised, leaving the building either too cold or too hot.
Bancroft himself was as imposing as the building. He wore a smock at his drawing table and regarded his profession as one with spiritual aims. He proclaimed himself a Victorian at heart and orchestrated a campaign to stop the Natural History Museum from destroying some of its galleries by persuading the comedian Spike Miligan to cut up a cake in the shape of the museum in the grounds. Sadly he could not win his battle to keep his own building from a similar fate.
In 1995 Westminster Council razed part of the building and last year it was completely destroyed despite his attempts to get the building listed. The building is however, one of those featured in a forthcoming Phaidon book, Concrete, due for publication in spring. Phaidon Design Director William Hall takes up the story:
“I remember walking past the school on a trip to London in the Eighties and it made for an unexpected and exhilarating vision - particularly situated as it was in genteel stuccoed Pimlico. Sitting in an excavated 6 metre deep pit gave this school the impression of a great warship in dry dock. Bancroft had the sort of singular vision for Pimlico School that makes buildings great. It was easy to see how it could be an inspirational and exciting place to study. But like many concrete buildings of the 60s and 70s, critics began to blame the design, and the material for its perceived failure when the reality is that the place suffered most from poor maintenance and disrepair.The school was replaced in 2010 by an undistinguished, inoffensive, mediocre construction. London is the poorer for it."