Interview with Dominic Cullinan, SCABAL

Dominic Cullinan is an architect and founding partner of SCABAL (Studio Cullinan & Buck Architects Ltd.) based in Hatton Garden.  Dominic met Jon Buck at Ian Richie architects in 1989 and they have worked together ever since, forming a partnership as Cullinan & Buck Architects in 1996.

Tell me about your first school?

My primary school in Ashford in Kent was a convent where the children were, you know, came in as their first school, but it was an all-through school so it had boys and girls that appeared to me to be virtually adults.

What about the space and the building …

I think it was a mixture of a Victorian building with sixties add-ons, very familiar.  So there were modern classrooms and Victorian ones but I don’t really remember the interior of the Victorian bit, just the interior of the modern classrooms.

What did the school look and feel like to you as a small child?

It definitely was round the back of the church, um, otherwise I think I just remember it feeling like a car park that had buildings in it.

What was your favourite place in the school …. did you have one?

No.  All my memories of that school are ones of sort of contained misery (laughs).  I was an object of derision … I know, sounds bad, doesn’t it.  Well, not maybe derision but an object of great amusement and the nuns would parade me (laughs).

Did you feel safe in the school?

Yeah, I don’t .. I mean some of these stories are relayed to me by my parents as reasons why they had to take me out of that school but I have older brothers and sisters so I don’t remember feeling unsafe.

Where did you go next?

To a prep school which was attached to a large country house in the countryside, so some six miles away from home, in a car every morning.  And that was portacabin style classrooms set in its own grounds. And my main memory of that is playing in the woods almost endlessly as far as I can remember, with the occasional lesson in between.

And as for the school itself, were there any hiding places or secret places?

Well, if the playing in the woods is the abiding memory there then that involves spending a lot of time in the trees and seeing how far you could get without touching the ground and you could go, I’m not sure for miles, but hundreds of yards from tree to tree and making camps and so the life outside the classroom there seems to be a much more of a stronger memory than life in the classroom.

dominic and dead tree

Do you remember learning to read at school and what are your memories of that?

I probably did learn to read at school but I can’t remember that at all?  Are most people able to remember that?  From those two school things, I don’t remember learning full stop.  Those aren’t the kind of memories that linger.

What would happen when somebody was to be punished?  Were they taken to a particular place?

In my own case it was under the teacher’s table.  So I have a strong memory of a school inspector coming round when I was under the teacher’s table.   So you sit under the table, their desk, in the class until, I suppose you …

So the teacher would say ‘Don’t do that!’ and then you’d go under the table for a specific amount of time?

Yes.  And there were occasions where I was sat under the table, not under my own class but classes of fifteen year old girls and then sat on top of the table in order to be (laughs) inspected.

Would the teacher be sitting at the table at the time, no, presumably not?

Well yeah, or the nun …

… the nun, so you’d be right by the nun’s legs?

Yes.  That’s when they weren’t hitting you on the back of the legs with a ruler.  It was very, sort of notoriously … I mean, one doesn’t really know how much that is memory or how much it is legend.

What about places where you might be rewarded for good behaviour?  Might you be celebrated in an assembly or rewarded by a school leader?

We had … because I wasn’t any good or properly able to participate in sport, but they had prize days at school so there’d be a sports day and then there would be a prize giving and they would give prizes  for academic things. And at my prep school I was able to win most of the prizes for the academic things.   I couldn’t quite … but the prep school was run in such a way that it might  have been just as much about compensation as it was about performance.  That prep school was just amazing for the kindness of the people that ran it.  But they had no academic ambitions at all, it was merely about providing some sort of lovely place.  But I don’t really remember, apart from those moments of honour, as it were, handed out, I don’t remember … At the nun’s school (his first school referred to above) the boys were punished by being made to wear hairbands, as if they were a girl.  And I remember climbing out of rose bushes and .. those were probably punishments  being meted out by the other children.

How did the transition from primary to secondary school affect you in terms of the different types of places that you were schooled in?

This fantastic prep school didn’t equip either me or probably a lot of the other kids there to go to public school so I had to spend a term in what is called a crammer, which is like a boarding school, in Seaford that was very small and what appeared to be in a boarding house, where people might stay.  And it was one term in the winter at the end of which I did an exam which got me into my posh public school and that was in Yorkshire.  So my mum put me on the train in floods of tears and then you went to London, had to cross London, by myself I suppose, and then at King’s Cross there’d be other people going to that school (laughs) with their trunks and that was a boy’s school.  My brother was already there though, so there was always a kind of way way to be introduced to these sort of things, I suppose.

Do you think that any of the schools that you’ve designed have been influenced by any schools that you went to yourself?

No, I’m going to say no, because that’s not … in coming to think about schools and designing them and thinking about them as institutions I don’t think I really came at it from that point of view. There are certain very clear things about one’s own school experience that you would seek to avoid and equally there might be very clear things to emulate.

Well, what would you seek to avoid, as an example?

In terms of space, sometimes rooms are just rooms.  Some rooms are well-designed and nice places to be and others less so.  So it’s often the way in which the school is organised as a sort of patriarchal system or around the management requirements of the system and not necessarily around the needs or best things for the children. And so when working on schools, one often sees that structurally in a way that you wouldn’t as a child.

There are, and were, amazing spaces in my public school that were sort of democratic in their own way and I could say, at a stretch if you wanted the question to be answered in a certain way, there was a particular space in my public school which was called The Big Hall or something and it was full of what were called carrels*.  And they’re like desks that are in boxes.  And they’re sort of arranged … so imagine a big room and these desks in boxes and there’s enough room for a desk, a chest of drawers and a few shelves, but in a box so when you’re sitting down you don’t see over the box and when you’re standing up, if you’re tall enough you do see over the box.  And they’re arranged a little bit like knights’ moves on a chess table, they’re all sort of arranged at right angles to each other to create a kind of maze of spaces.  And the monitor would sit on a raised platform, which was a great big Victorian windowsill and be able to see from above this array of carrels.

And it gave the fantastic impression of being controlled but not controlled.  So you’d be able to do your work but also be able to not do your work.  And there were ways of traversing the room without being seen by the monitor – crawling around and so on.  So it was an ideal opportunity to conform and not conform in a permanently structured way.

How did the carrels evolve?  Did they come from monasteries?

The school is not terribly old, it’s not like Eton or anything, the library was organised in that way.  So, the library’s a large Victorian room with big arches and, er what are they called?  You know the chapels you get in a church, around the outside of the nave or whatever, um, there were lots of those where the books would go in and out of those and there would be tables either between the bookshelves or as part of the bookshelves.  So the idea of undertaking your own work by yourself but in a collective place, obviously surrounded by books in that case, might have come from that.  As you got older you ended up with your own room in which you were expected to work but the younger kids had these carrels.  They all lived in dormitories but they were expected to go to the main school to work.

And you enjoyed that?

Well, I think in retrospect, you might say that idea, where you have formal lessons that you go to, that you find by walking down corridors, navigating your way around the school, but also you have long periods where you’re expected to do work in that collective democratic space and obviously attempting not to do work, mixing those thing together, I suppose you’d say quite formative and, I’ve never thought of this before, and actually something I would think … I’m really reluctant to say that anything to do with public schools should be imprinted on comprehensive schools, but you could say that’s a clear desired thing and maybe one that we always imagined that would be possible at UCL Academy school**.

I don’t think you’re saying that … I mean, the idea is valid wherever it came from, isn’t it, if it works …

Yes … but the reason I say that is that I don’t .. I thoroughly and deeply disapprove of public schools and I thoroughly and deeply disapprove of my own school experience there, sort of on top of everything else, so one has school experiences, can you disapprove of your own school experiences, I’m not sure if that’s possible?

My wife’s sister’s children still go to that school so I’ve had the opportunity to revisit it as one of their godparents, so I’m mortified that I had anything to do with it.  They send me, every three months, a kind of newsletter from this school (laughs).  I would simply like to see it demolished!

Would you?

Well, if it could have some proper social use, yeah, then I think it should be allowed to continue.  It’s difficult to imagine a school in the middle of nowhere having a proper social use but maybe there is a role for, I don’t know, disenfranchised pupils to go to a boarding school (laughs).

If there‘s a democratic learning space that every child could benefit from, what would it be?  Actually, take the word democratic out of that … if there’s a learning space that every child could benefit from?

Well, I think … let’s only take the word democratic out because we might be using it wrongly or in a kind of soft way.  But certainly, one gets the impression, yeah, even if it’s an idealised one, that the classroom in a primary school sort of belongs to the pupils because they are not necessarily the sole curator of that room, as it’s shared with the teacher.  In fact, the teacher has the air of hosting that room with all these collaborators.  So they will go to the drawer to get crayons.  They’ll set the crayons up, they’ll put them away.  And even at some of the schools we work at, you are there and some small children will be coming down the corridor, having left the classroom to take the register back to the reception (office), something really quite simple but where they’re operating in the school as if it were theirs.  Now that is a good, clear motive that should describe schools as spaces and should be encouraged more to secondary schools and more in the way that the school spaces are described and laid out.  So less as clear delineations of subject because the subject belongs to the master or the teacher or mistress and therefore the ownership of the room follows those things and more in the delineation either of the pupils of, perhaps, cohorts of different sizes like houses … now that’s another thing that might have come from there (public school) although the houses in my public school were about where you slept and ate as opposed to where you learned, but since most children in day schools are learning then there’s a way of organising that there.  So that the fundamental organisation and therefore rooms that you find in it (secondary school) are organised by a sense of ownership by children. And the teachers, the adults, to some extent should be visiting those spaces or sharing the hosting of them with the children.  So there aren’t rooms that have a fixed brief that requires them to be occupied by thirty children and a teacher; there are rooms that are all different sizes and equipped in different ways to be generally useful to, I’m going to use the word again, that democratic idea of shared space.

What about the idea of a domestic space?  If you think about schools being more like a home in some way, rooms have very assigned roles in a home.

One of the tendencies is for every space … every space to be able to be … because if you start by listing spaces ‘to do with the subjects’, ‘to do with the teachers’, ‘to do with the numbers’ you end up with corridors of the same rooms, all trying to be all things.  But they’re sort of set around a number of people.  So ‘I have a maths class today, I’m in this set, I go to this teacher, I go to that classroom’ – that classroom is necessarily like all other classrooms, like other maths classrooms, for example.  A maths classroom is, in many ways, physically identical to a French classroom, a geography classroom.  So if you take that idea away and you say that ‘I need to do some learning today of some kind in a group in a domestic setting, or like we were at home’ then you might be able to go and find that space. Of course, that space might need to be timetabled so that it’s not ‘I feel like doing this today’ but the organisation is structured so that the very specificity of space is understood.  Now that’s a common practice in office design, in fact it’s a common practice in house design, the kitchen’s a very different environment to the living room, to the bedroom.  And in office design, the offices are organised to be specific to their use – there’s the boardroom, the cafe, the typing pool … I know there’s no such thing but … if you go through sophisticated office design they have a whole language of different kinds of space or different kinds of setting – that’s like the organisation of furniture – only sometimes those settings need to be in a space.  And in office space the workers are trusted to make decisions, in fact encouraged to make decisions about the use of space that suits the need of their productivity.  And obviously  in office design people are in love with the idea that space encourages, promotes productivity.  Why cannot that be true in schools where productivity is important?

On a slightly different tack, if an architect and an educationalist were to meet for coffee, what should they talk about?

When you say an educationalist , take, for example, your word domestic … my daughter, because she did it more than others, spent quite a lot of time lying on the sofa with a laptop, maybe the television would be on in the same room, but ending up doing quite well in her ‘A’ levels.  Now when she was lying on the sofa with her laptop she was, in fact, doing her homework.  Maybe slightly half-heartedly, but nonetheless, getting it done.  So that understanding that learning takes place in different ways for different pupils is where I would like to start a conversation with educationalists.  Whether they are teachers in a secondary school or educationalists per se, and then to build a conversation around that, rather than to start with the existing structures of school and try to break them down, you know, try to remodel them because that can be too .. too … to get headteachers or school teachers to disassemble everything can be very difficult and not necessarily wise, although we have managed it on some occasions.  I suppose our shame, or our … er ..frustration, is not necessarily managing to put it back together again for a proposal for a school.  But the conversation for me is most interesting when it starts strategically like that as opposed to  trying to make a catalogue of a great window or a great floor space.

I can see that in your work.  If you had the ability to change just one thing about schools, to transform them magically, what would you do?   

I think that evolution comes through deviation, not necessarily the survival of the fittest.  So I think that successful deviation should be allowed … encouraged to happen.  The problem with schools is that the central government sees the school estate as one thing and is constantly trying to keep up with the school estate and trying to manage it as one thing.  I think it would be much better if a school estate was locally allowed to deviate and for each locality to see the advantage of deviation in its neighbours.  So at the moment there is no capacity or, in fact, desire for any kind of deviation.  So I think this conversation in the cafe between the architect and the educationalist is verboten.  Well, they can have as many conversations as they like, which cannot be allowed to turn into innovation, which is unlike many other periods in history.  I thought when we were doing BSF, that was constrained, but I see now that it was another heyday in its own way, like after the war.

So you think they’ve been actively stopped .. these conversations?

Yes.  I think without doubt.  The (previous) government and this next one is building lots of schools but they are prescribed using template designs.  One of the purposes of that was to stop architects spending lots of time and therefore money with local authorities, headteachers, school children, all the people who are going to use the schools because that was seen as expensive.  So I would go so far as to say that schools are seen as disruptive, or certainly the people in them, just like hospitals: if hospitals weren’t so full of patients they’d be easy to run, so much more efficient.

*A carrel or carol, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage was the name given in medieval English monasteries to a small study in a cloister.  The word dropped out of use in the 16th century but was readopted in the 20th century to denote a private cubicle for reading in a library.

**UCL academy is a secondary school based in Swiss Cottage, Camden, London that is sponsored by University College, London.

This interview with Dominic Cullinan took place on 20th May 2015 at the SCABAL (Studio Cullinan & Buck Architects Limited) offices in Hatton Garden, London.




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