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Saturday02 August 2014

60 seconds with...John Bancroft

John Bancroft in his GLC office in the 1970s
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BD asks designer John Bancroft how it feels to join the ranks of architects whose buildings have been bulldozed during their lifetime

John Bancroft joined the Architects’ Department of the Greater London Council in 1957 and led the project to build world-renowned Pimlico school from 1964 to 1970. BD asked him about the building and how he reacted to hearing it would be demolished this week.

What are your memories of building the school?

I saw it right the way through from my first design to completion of the contract and the first intake of pupils from three existing secondary schools. At the time the Inner London education Authority (ILEA) had put a lot of effort into creating a system of comprehensive schools. Pimlico was the last to be designed.

What can you remember about the reaction to the school at the time?

Well the building was noticed even before it left the drawing board. It was described as a “futuristic battleship” and this kind of thing. I was very happy because it really grew to have an international reputation.

The architectural profession lauded it. But what was the public response?

Well actually the public, that is the parents and pupils of the school, were extremely pleased. They liked the school. And since then the school has always done very well. It got good marks in its last OFSTED report. I have the most recent in my files.

You’ve kept up with the school’s progress?

Oh indeed. In fact quite frankly the archive I have is pretty huge.

So do you think the building helps the school get good results?

Yes, I think the design has helped the students to do well academically. It does that partly through the actual organisation of the school, the plan form, the circulation, the rooms and how well they behave in relation to their individual functions.

What about the site itself?

I was also very aware of that. It’s a a wonderful site and the school appears very much as it has been described: “a ship in dry dock”. It relates well to its surroundings. Urban design has always been a very powerful influence in my thinking. For example, if you’ve got high buildings lining a street they will channel the air and those walking down the street can have a very unpleasant experience. We avoided that in Pimlico.

How did you feel when you heard about the demolition?

I was alerted to this latest effort by a former parent governor of the school who was very upset about it.

But I suppose it’s not the end of the world. I haven’t seen the drawings of the new building because I thought it was a waste of my time to go the planning meeting where Westminster city council gave itself planning approval without, in my opinion, very much discussion – I’ve been fighting Westminster city council for years.

So you think Westminster council has never been sympathetic to the building?

I feel that they’ve neglected the school almost since they took it over. But in my opinion the real villain of piece was Thatcher who abolished the GLC. I feel since then there’s been a prejudice against it. I don’t know where it stems from.

I went to see people at Westminster in the early days when they were new in the saddle and they had a conservation officer who was very keen on the building. They quickly got rid of him though. As far as I know they dropped him down a deep well. They’re only interested in officers that are yes-men.

Interview by David Shariatmadari

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